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Europa League draw analysis August 29, 2009

Posted by Alex Tomchak Scott in Uncategorized.
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Preface: Let it not be said by anyone that the newly-christened Europa League is not a farce. It is. You shouldn’t waste your time watching it. If you’ll notice, since its most recent format change, it’s been won three times by clubs from the former Soviet Union. That is not a coincidence, but rather an emblem of how seriously nobody takes the competition. Until the light appears at the end of the tunnel, nobody really cares whether he wins it, and when it gets to the business end, ex-Soviet teams dominate simply because their longer winter break allows them to hit their peak fitness right at the perfect time.

But the most recent edition gives me something to write about. And write I shall. Clubs in colors have won European competitions before

Group A (Ajax, Anderlecht, Dinamo Zagreb, Poli Timisoara): Three teams that have seen better days and one Eastern European irrelevance. Ajax still produces an array of skilfull players, so you’d call them favorites. Anderlecht is whithering faster than Dinamo, still Croatia’s best team, so I’m giving the edge to the latter, simply because of an affection for Igor Biscan. Blast from the past: Biscan, the Zagreb captain who won the Champions League with Liverpool but never looked fully competent. It all hinges on: Winston Parks, a powerful Costa Rican striker for Poli, who could help them spring surprises. Deserves better: Luis Suarez, the Ajax captain, an extremely classy Uruguayan who hauled them through the qualifiers.

Group B (Valencia, Lille, Slavia Prague, Genoa): This one is difficult, because it pits teetering Valencia against two of Western Europe’s up-and-coming teams and the Czech champions. The Spaniards will still probably make it, but don’t be surprised to see them bested. Genoa was stripped of its two best players by Inter this summer, so you’d have to give Lille the edge. Blast from the past: Vladimir Smicer, another Champions League winner with Liverpool who finds himself at Slavia. It all hinges on: Hernan Crespo, an Argentine hitman who has puzzlingly never really made it, Crespo needs to prove himself worthy of replacing Diego Milito at Genoa. Deserves better: David Villa, not an unknown, but it’s appalling to think that Europe’s most effective striker might not even be paid this season.

Group C (Hamburg, Celtic, Hapoel Tel-Aviv, Rapid Vienna): Hamburg have shot off like a rocket in the Bundesliga this year, so that’s likely to be their priority. However, even turning out second-teamers, they’ll likely best their sorry opponents. Don’t be surprised to see a solid Tel-Aviv overtake Celtic. Blast from the past: Vincent Enyeama, a veteran of several World Cups with Nigeria who now backstops for Tel-Aviv. It all hinges on: Aiden McGeady, upon whose inconsistent shoulders Tony Mowbray has rested Celtic’s hopes. Deserves better: Walid Badir, not necessarily for his performances. However, the ethnically Arab Tel-Aviv captain has a solid decade for the Israeli national team behind him, no mean feat.

Group D (Sporting (Lisbon), Heerenveen, Hertha Berlin, Ventspils): Sporting is actually an impressive team that was heading for the Champions League until Stevan Jovetic had his stay. Hertha threatened to win the league last season, but did so largely on because of the goalscoring of broad-chested Ukrainian Andre Voronin, now back at Liverpool.  It wouldn’t be surprising to see Heerenveen challenge the capital club for a place in the next round, but neither is too impressive. Who knows much about Ventspils? Blast from the past: Alexanders Kolinko, Vitalijs Astafjevs and Vits Rimkus, all members of the surprising Latvia team at Euro 2004 and of Ventspils. Nobody’s heard from that team’s members since. It all hinges on: Artur Wichniarek, the Polish striker will have to fill the gap left by Voronin, despite goalscoring stats that have never been world-class. Deserves better: Miguel Veloso, the impressive Sporting holding midfielder who has, for some reason, not made the expected move to a big-name club this summer.

Group E (Roma, Basel, Fulham, CSKA Sofia): If all the clubs here play to their potential, it will be Roma and Fulham going through. Both are built of solid parts. If one of them is to deteriorate, it will be the Italian club, whose only significant addition this summer has been the hapless Argentine defender Nicolas Burdisso, on loan from Inter. Basel is probably likelier to take advantage, with its impressive Champions League pedigree. Possible added interest: a meeting of the Riise brothers. Blast from the past: Pascal Zuberbuhler, Fulham’s Swiss goalkeeper who spent seven years at Basel. If he plays, it will be emotional, although he is third-choice. It all hinges on: David Pizarro, the Chilean midfielder who played little part for Roma last season but will need to compensate for the loss of the talented Alberto Aquilani. Deserves better: Brede Hangeland, a solid and classy Norwegian center half who has displayed laudable loyalty to Fulham despite interest from England’s heavyweights.

Group F (Panathinaikos, Galatasaray, Dinamo Bucharest, Sturm Graz): Don’t poo-poo Dinamo: Romanian soccer is an up-and-coming force and Red Dogs have a balanced and talented side. But Galatasaray and Panathinaikos are both very strong, deep teams you probably can’t see past, especially the Turks, whose squad contains tons of talent, including… Blast from the past: Harry Kewell, who once looked set to conquer the world, has played at left-back and even central defense for the Turks, but has also made a positive impression to become a fans’ favorite. It all hinges on: Gabriel Tamas, the Dinamo captain and center half, who has played for Galatasaray, and will have to be in peak form to repulse the onslaught likely to come from the southeastern Europeans. Deserves better: Arda Turan, Galatasaray’s 22-year-old captain, will be in Western Europe soon. One must also mention Sebastian Leto, whose impressive performances since he was jettisoned by Liverpool have placed yet another question mark next to Rafael Benitez’s judgement.

Group G (Villarreal, Lazio, Levski Sofia, Salzburg): Two big clubs, two little clubs. But Salzburg is impressively bankrolled by the energy drink Red Bull and Lazio is facing financial problems. Nevertheless, if they couldn’t even get past Maccabi Haifa… Blast from the past: Alexander Zickler, a 35-year-old German striker who spent 12 unimpressive years at Bayern but has nearly a goal every other game for Salzburg. It all hinges on: Somen Tchoyi, the Cameroonian who proved he has impressive talents against Haifa and will need to work hard to get Salzburg through. Deserves better: Matuzalem, the Brazilian attacking midfielder deserves better luck with injuries. He comes from the same outstanding youth soccer class as Ronaldinho, but his body has never quite allowed him to express his talents consistently.

Group H (Steaua Bucharest, Fenerbahce, Twente, Sheriff Tiraspol): Twente is an interesting team, and not at all just because smarmy former England coach Steve McClaren is the club’s coach. There’s an impressive roster of talent at the Netherlands’ second-placed squad: Chelsea wunderkinds Slobodan Rajkovic and Miroslav Stoch, outrageously prolific Swiss Blaise Kufo, and two exciting new additions in South African star Bernard Parker and Iraqi playmaker Nashat Akram. But this is also a pretty evenly matched group, with very strong Steaua and Fenerbahce teams and Sheriff, who played quite well in the Champions League qualifiers. Blast from the past: Roberto Carlos, the Brazilian left-back with the plus-size thighs is still going strong. It all hinges on: Juan Toja, a very talented Colombian playmaker who can make the difference for Steaua if he finds some form. Deserves better: Alexander Suvorov, the Moldovan who shares his name with a great general also has the talent to be the first man to make it big in the sport out of his country.

Group I (Benfica, Everton, AEK Athens, BATE Borisov): Benfica should be favorites for this tournament, at least among the teams currently in it and not from the old USSR. They have a bounty of attacking talent. Behind them, Everton ought to progress if David Moyes can sort them out, but you have the feeling he won’t, which could present a chance for a reasonable AEK side or the BATE team that presented so many problems for Real Madrid last year. Blast from the past: Pablo Aimar and Javier Saviola used to be big stars and the big leagues, but between injury problems and coaches’ growing distrust for small men they’ve gone out of fashion. Benfica offers both a chance for rehabilitation. It all hinges on: Mikel Arteta, Everton’s Spanish lynchpin. He suffered a serious injury last season, but it’s difficult to see how anything other than the playmaker’s finding his best form will save the Merseysiders from their decline. Deserves better: Freddy Adu, who has probably suffered more than anyone from coaches’ distrust of small men. When he plays, he looks good, but he doesn’t play and nobody can explain why.

Group J (Shakhtar Donetsk, Club Brugge, Partizan Belgrade, Toulouse): Last year’s champions have a pretty easy group ahead of them. Brugge is the third best team in a weak Belgian league, Partizan’s squad is thin, and Toulouse is punching above its weight just being here. It’s difficult to pick the runner up, but let’s go for the French team. Blast from the past: Mathieu Berson, whom Aston Villa fans voted player of the season while he was on loan at Nantes, in protest. It seems a while since they’ve had much to complain about. It all hinges on: Soren Larsen, with his impressive scoring record for Denmark, has utterly failed at replacing Johan Elmander for Toulouse. Deserves better: Mircea Lucescu, the Romanian coach who has done well at Shakhtar for years without much of an offer from elsewhere.

Group K (PSV, Copenhagen, Sparta Prague, Cluj): Another fairly weak group. Cluj would have been a good bet for a surprise before, but these days the oil money’s dried up. PSV’s a good bet to make it, but behind them you wonder which of Sparta’s pedigree or Copenhagen’s biting at big heels in recent years will win out. Blast from the past: Patrik Berger, who played some good years in big leagues, is now too oft-injured to feature regularly for Sparta. It all hinges on: Sixto Peralta, the star for Cluj in last season’s Champions League. If he and Yssouf Kone turn up big again, Cluj can book tickets to the next round. Deserves better: Carlos Salcido is another man who would have made it really big long ago if there weren’t a prejudice against small men.

Group L (Werder Bremen, Austria Vienna, Athletic Bilbao, Nacional (Madeira)): Bremen’s talent just keeps on growing and the Germans find themselves in a pretty easy group. Athletic struggled against relegation last season, while Nacional and Austria both had unimpressive finishes in their divisions. If Athletic puts too much emphasis on this competition, the Basques will probably be relegated, so you’d probably pick Austria. Blast from the past: Jacek Bak, the long-serving Poland defender apparently has not yet retired. It all hinges on: Carlos Gurpegui, one of Athletic’s key men until a positive drug test robbed him of some years, he’ll be important to the club’s hopes in this competition since Bilbao will likely rely on reserves. Deserves better: Naw, everyone ought to be happy to be here.

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