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The opening weeks of the Europa League may not be littered with matches which scream elite continental competition.
But after slogging through meetings between unseeded teams in the group stage – it would be cruel to name names but you know which clubs we’re talking about (or rather, you don’t know them, which is the point) – the knockout stages serve as an intriguing second act to each week of European football after the Champions League main event.
With the second legs of the round of 16 to come, here’s are the favourites for the competition.
Any other club enduring the domestic campaign Sevilla have been slogging through this year would have no right to be considered among the favourites for a European crown. But the Europa League is only practically owned by Sevilla and leased to the few teams that sporadically claim it otherwise.
Jorge Sampaoli’s side were outside La Liga’s relegation zone on goal difference alone when they earned a 2-0 first-leg victory over Fenerbahce in the round of 16. Sevilla are on the outskirts of this favourite tag but a history of winning this competition six times – more than double the next most successful club – ensures they have to be part of the conversation.
Xabi Alonso’s first top-flight managerial role has endured its fair share of ups and downs. After beating Schalke 4-0 on his debut in the dugout, Bayer Leverkusen went a month without winning while exiting the Champions League group stage.
A five-game winning streak on either side of the World Cup was punctured by successive defeats to Borussia Dortmund and Augsburg, but the return of the immensely talented teenager Florian Wirtz has been instrumental to Leverkusen’s progression in the Europa League. If the 19-year-old can continue to average a goal or assist every 91 minutes, Leverkusen’s continental run could continue.
While their appeal is still cranking through the first cogs of Italian bureaucracy, the 15-point penalty Juventus were handed in January has sent Serie A tumbling down the club’s list of priorities.
The Europa League is quite clearly Juve’s most likely route back into the Champions League and Massimiliano Allegri has led the Old Lady to a pair of European finals in the past – although, he lost them both with far better squads than the modern-day iteration.
The first European trophy Jose Mourinho ever won was the Europa League’s more streamlined predecessor, the UEFA Cup. Much has changed since a slick-haired 40-year-old steered Porto to glory in 2003 but the current Roma manager still boasts a strong chance of winning again two decades later.
Mourinho led Roma to the inaugural Europa Conference League last season and oversaw a 2-0 victory at home to Real Sociedad in the first leg of a tricky round of 16 tie. The bolted door Mourinho locks each game may not lend itself to the consistency demanded of a league title challenge, but there still seems to be a place for it in knockout competitions.
The Premier League leaders are hardly guaranteed a spot in the quarter-finals after battling out a draw in Lisbon with a home tie against a troublesome Sporting CP side to come.
With such a clearly established starting XI in the Premier League, Arsenal lack the same fluency when Mikel Arteta shuffles his pack on the continent. Theoretically, the Gunners are arguably the strongest team still left in the competition – hence their lofty positioning in this list – but the team may be more focused on ending the 19-year wait for a top-flight title.
After some dancing on the side of the pitch, the immediate reaction among the Manchester United squad to winning the Carabao Cup was: “This is just the start.”
A historic mauling at Anfield somewhat dented talk of a “new era” at Old Trafford but Erik ten Hag once again underscored his managerial prowess by naming the exact same team against Real Betis for the Europa League round of 16 first leg.
Bruno Fernandes inspired the wounded squad to a commanding 4-1 victory against Real Betis, Spain’s highest-ranked team left in the tournament, all but securing United a spot in the quarter-finals where few teams will want to face them.