After over two months of break, the Europa League is finally starting up again. Beginning mid-February, the Round of 32 kicks off with an evenly spread draw. The best matchup features second-place Italian side Roma facing sixth-place Spanish side Villarreal. Apart from that, the notable contenders should have an easy time reaching the Round of 16.
With three-time reigning champs Sevilla still alive in the Champions League, the Europa League crown will find a new home this season.
Manchester United and Tottenham remain the outright favorites to win the Europa Cup. United have been paired with Ligue 1 side AS Saint-Étienne, which will pit Paul Pogba against his lesser-known older brother, Florentin Pogba. Only one Pogba will advance to the next round, and it will likely be the one you’ve heard of.
United are currently undefeated in 13 straight Premier League games but their performance in the Europa League has been far less impressive. During the Group Stage, they lost two games and only managed to qualify second in Group A. That was earlier in the season, though. Manchester United have come a long way since. With the team settling in under manager Jose Mourinho and star recruits like Pogba and Zlatan Ibrahimovic finding their place within the team, they are now a formidable opponent against any side in Europe.
After a disastrous Champions League group stage, Tottenham find themselves resigned to competing for the Europa Cup. Like United, their impressive domestic record this season doesn’t quite match up with their performance internationally. After losing to Man U in mid-December, Spurs have gone undefeated in their last seven league games.
Roma, currently second in Serie A, only four points below Juventus, sit just below the English contenders in the Europa futures. Their star striker, Edin Džeko, had a disappointing debut season in 2015-16, but things have clicked for him this year and he leads the team in goals with 15. With Džeko’s finishing and Mohamed Salah’s pace, Roma are a side to be reckoned with.
As usual, Ukrainian giants Shakhtar Donetsk are among the top contenders for the Europa League. Domestically, Shakhtar have blown the competition away, leading the Ukrainian league by 13 points after only 18 games. But they don’t have the depth or experience of the other top Europa sides. The same goes for Russian side Zenit, who are second in the Russian league.
Usually, La Liga has some of its second-tier sides in contention. But with Sevilla in the Champions League, Athletic Bilbao are the only Spanish side with a real shot this year. Meanwhile, Schalke 04 carry the hopes of Germany. Both Bilbao and Schalke are currently have disappointing seasons domestically, but on paper they are still strong. With a little bit of tinkering they could go a long way.
As it stands, though, the English sides are still the favorites to take the Cup. Despite all their hiccups this season, they are still the ones with the star players and the big money.
Odds to Win 2016-17 Europa League
Manchester United: 5/1
Shakhtar Donetsk: 14/1
Athletic Bilbao: 17/1
Schalke 04: 17/1
Photo credit: “Manchester United Defend” by Paul, CC BY-SA 2.0 [http://creativecommons.org/licenses/by-sa/2.0], via Flickr.