With 12 groups and 48 teams, not to mention an opening knockout round which features 8 drop-outs from the Champions League, the UEFA Europa League really is a marathon, yet one that this year already features some of Europe’s oldest and grandest names. Manchester United, Roma, Ajax and Inter Milan are names perhaps more synonymous with Europe’s premier club competition, while recent Champions League regulars Shakhtar Donetsk and Zenit St. Petersburg also find themselves in the almighty dust-up, not to mention passport-stamping joyride which is the Europa League. Here are a few of the highlights from matchday 1, taking place on Thursday 15th September.
Sassuolo V Athletic Bilbao, 18:00 GMT
Sassuolo are not a name you normally associate with Italian footballing success, but in recent years the side from the province of Modena have been causing quite a stir since reaching Serie A for the first time in 2013, culminating in their highest ever finish of 6th in 2015/16 and a first ever European adventure for the Neroverdi. Their first ever group stage opponents are the historic name of Athletic Bilbao, losing finalists in 1977 (as the UEFA Cup) and more recently in 2012. It’s always big when Serie A and La Liga collide, and this game looks almost too close to call.
Sassuolo 2.62, Draw 3.25, Athletic Bilbao 2.62
Southampton V Sparta Prague, 20.05
Like Sassuolo, England’s Southampton are a side who have made year-on-year progress in recent seasons, coming up through the lower leagues to book their place at the European table. Having lost in the play-off round last season, the Saints finally find themselves in the group stage, with Claude Puel’s side at home against regular Europa League participants Sparta Prague, who were knocked out at the quarter-final stage last year by Villarreal, thus representing their furthest progression in European competition.
Southampton 1.45, Draw 4.20, Sparta Prague 7.50
AZ Alkmaar V Dundalk, 18:00 GMT
Not since 2011 have an Irish team featured in the Europa League groups stage (Shamrock Rovers were the participants that time) so it is no small business that Dundalk will be representing the Emerald isle this time round. In a tough group also featuring Zenit, the Irish side will be desperate to get off to a good start, even if it is from a daunting away trip to Alkmaar, who finished fourth in last season’s Dutch Eredivise. With their opponents shorn of top scorer Vincent Janssen who has moved to Tottenham, Dundalk may fancy their chances after clocking up some impressive results in qualifying.
AZ Alkmaar 1.36, Draw 5.00, Dundalk 7.00
Feyenoord V Manchester United, 18:00 GMT
Jose Mourinho, Zlatan Ibrahimovic, Paul Pogba and Wayne Rooney; not normally names associated with the Europa League, but so it will be for the Red Devils this year after finishing a disappointing fifth in the Premier League last season. This is a match-up that could easily be taking place in the Champions League, but in truth Feyenoord are a shadow of their former selves, but will relish this chance to relieve the glory days with this visit of the big spending English side.
Feyenoord 5.00, Draw 3.80, Man Utd 1.66
Panathanaikos V Ajax, 20;05 GMT
Another tie which could have been a Champions League encounter only a short time ago, Panathainkos and Ajax are two clubs who are currently a pale imitation of what they once were. Yet both possess European pedigree, passionate supporters and a thirst to reassert themselves on the European game; all leading to an intriguing encounter at the atmospheric Apostolos Nikolaidis Stadium on matchday 1.
Panathanaikos 2.50, Draw 3.25, Ajax 2.80
To Win Outright
Man Utd 6.50
Inter Milan 17.00
Athletic Bilbao 17.00
Zenit St. Petersburg 21.00
All odds courtesy of bet365 and correct as of 22:00 GMT on 01/09/16
By: Steve Paget