Ronaldo drought emblematic of Real’s problems this season

Ronaldo drought emblematic of Real’s problems this season

Beyond the halfway point in the La Liga season and one statistic has unsurprisingly remained consistent from the previous eight at the Santiago Bernabeau; Cristiano Ronaldo is Real Madrid’s top scorer in La Liga this campaign. This is where the constancy ends for Real this year and this stat alone, in fact, highlights the sheer, alarming chasm to Barcelona.

Ronaldo’s scoring tally for the season currently sits at 4 La Liga goals (in 14 starts) and his side’s home defeat last weekend to Villarreal confirmed Los Blancos are trailing league leaders Barcelona by an extraordinary 19 points; after Barcelona ensured 3 points with a 4-2 win at Real Sociedad, coming from two goals down at the Anoeta on Sunday evening.

Last Saturday’s home defeat to Villarreal was only symptomatic of Real’s ongoing issues that are facing Zinedine Zidane. As Pablo Fornais produced a floated lob over the helpless Keylor Navas in the 87th-minute, immediately following the Mexican’s point-blank stop from Enes Unal, Real were left to stew on repeated frustrations felt in their blunt attack.

“Anyone who says we played badly has no idea about football”, Toni Kroos insisted. The German midfielder’s frustration stemming from the fact that his side had produced 28 shots in this game alone. But only 7 of these had forced Villarreal goalkeeper Sergio Asenjo into saves. Two penalty appeals turned down and one Ronaldo shot that hit the bar further summarised the recurring theme.

Villarreal’s players celebrated wildly following their win at the home of the European Champions, as they had every right to. This was the first time they had won at the Bernabeu, at the 19th attempt. “We’re very happy- this is historic”, Javier Calleja, their coach said delightedly, after the game.

Zidane on the other side of the corridor bemoaned his side’s current crisis, “This is a hard, terrible blow. We did everything we could but the ball just didn’t want to go in. There’s no explanation”.

Many will point to last summer that has proved the downturn in their success. Real have clearly lost their chemistry and quality in depth since the 2017 summer window. Despite the recruitment of promising youngsters like Theo Hernandez and Dani Ceballos, the sales of influential squad players like James Rodriguez, Alvaro Morata and even Mariano Lopez have disrupted the first-team at the Bernabeau.

Ronaldo’s recent response to criticism was “Go look it up on Google…the numbers do not lie”, (in reference to his own goal-scoring record) can be aptly applied to his club’s predicament on the pitch, being as they are admittedly, damming for Zidane’s side. At the halfway point of this season, Real have already lost more games than in their entire 2016/17 title-winning campaign; 11 less points than after this weekend last year. Saturday’s home defeat to Villarreal was their second consecutive, and third in total, home loss this season- the last time they experienced back-to-back home losses in La Liga was eight years ago.

Truly remarkably, this is only the second time in their history they have been this far adrift domestically and in fact, sit closer, in terms of points, to the relegation zone than to the league leaders (16 points above Deportivo La Coruna in 18th).

10 points behind their city rivals Atletico and 8 behind Marcelinho’s Valencia, domestic Champions League qualification and the preservation of that prized European elite trophy must now be the necessities if Zidane is to save a disastrous campaign.

For their star Ronaldo, success will be determined by a talent he has always possessed in spades- the ability to produce and make the difference on the big occasion; and if the Portuguese number 7 is to net the winner to eliminate Paris Saint Germain from the Champions League last round of 16, just watch his plaudits re-convene in the ever so familiar fervent, devout narrative for the superstar once again.

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5 European players who could be in line for a January move

5 European players who could be in line for a January move

As clubs over the continent plot the bolstering of squad quality and depth to enhance their domestic aspirations, players who may or may not be in favour at the respective clubs will be looking to the month ahead to secure that crucial move to enhance their own chances of appearing in the sport’s most esteemed international competition next summer; the World Cup.  The following five players are no doubt looking to earn a plane ticket to Russia by securing more first-team football and are highly tipped for a New Year move.

1- Sergej Milinkovic-Savic- Nicknamed “Sergente” in Italy; the 6ft 4in midfielder is an imposing figure for Lazio who, despite suffering from a recent poor run of form, have been reaping the benefits from the ever improving, box-to-box dynamism from the 22-year old Serbian; attracting the likes of Man Utd, Juventus and Paris Saint-Germain. Savic is thought to have earmarked Old Trafford as his preferred destination, having described Jose Mourinho as “the best manager in the world…He’s intelligent and simply great”.

The young Serb has a better record than any Man Utd midfielder this season with 5 league goals to his name, with 3 having been converted outside of the 18-yard box. In fact, Kevin de Bruyne is the only midfielder in the Premier League with a superior record than Milinkovic-Savic for goals scored outside of the penalty are. His versatility and range of attributes to his game will be another factor that is appealing to so many of Europe’s top scouts, boasting the second-best passing and tackling rate at Lazio.

2-Javier Pastore- The 28-year old Argentine is thought to have played his last game for Paris Saint-Germain, having featured in less than half of his side’s domestic fixtures for the past 2 seasons. Pastore signed for PSG from Palermo in 2011 for a noteworthy €43m, following the club’s takeover by “Qatar Sports Investments”.

The player is said to be desperate to ensure the move goes ahead in January, to boost any chances he may have re-claiming a spot with the Argentina squad for Russia 2018. Whilst Atletico Madrid and Sevilla have shown firm interest, Pastore’s agent Marcelo Simonian has talked up the idea of a move to Inter Milan; “Bringing in Pastore would be a historic opportunity for the Nerazzurri to get back to their winning ways of the past”.

PSG are keen for a sale to be made in the New Year to ensure they can meet with the required UEFA Financial Fair Play regulations.

3- Javier Mascherano- The 33-year old Argentine defender has been out of favour at Barcelona this season, having fallen behind Samuel Umtiti and Gerard Pique in the pecking order at the club; “In Barcelona, it is clear that I am not playing at the frequency I played before…I’m in a team where every game I play is because I earn it in training, but it is clear there are many times you want to play more”.

A return to River Plate or Liverpool has been suggested by various international press associations, but reports in Spain have stated that a €10m agreement has been made with Hebei China Fortune (managed by Manuel Pellegrini), with the deal to be completed next month.

Barcelona may be keen to push the deal through as they target 23-year old Colombian defender Yerry Mina from Palmeiras.

4- Hatem Ben Arfa- The former Newcastle and Nice attacking midfielder has been frozen out of the first-team picture at PSG and is desperate for an escape route to resurrect his career, having not featured for Unai Emery’s side since mid-March. With only six months remaining on the 30-year old’s current deal; PSG may be willing to sell him for a cut-price fee in the January window.

Leicester City are understood to have expressed a firm interest, with Foxes boss Claude Puel having previous experience of working with Ben Arfa at Nice, “I have crossed paths with Hatem every now and then and each time we have spoken a bit,” Puel claimed earlier this month. “I appreciate the player but I also appreciate the person”.

West Ham United are also understood to have shown an interest.

5- Jack Wilshere- Out of contract in the summer and having featured in only 8 league games this season for Arsenal, the 25-year old attacking midfielder will be keen to do whatever is necessary to force his way into Gareth Southgate’s squad plans for Russia 2018 next summer. The England manager recently explained Wilshere’s current domestic situation was damaging his international prospects for first-team selection; “I don’t know how you get into an England squad without getting in the Arsenal team,” Southgate told reporters after his omission from the recent round of international friendlies.

As a home-grown player under UEFA rules, Wilshere would interest many Premier League clubs (particularly West Ham and Everton who are understood to have made enquiries), whilst he would be free to sign with a foreign club on January 1, but the player is reportedly keen to stay in England.

Italy’s drastic decline confirmed after qualification failure

Italy’s drastic decline confirmed after qualification failure

The floods of tears visibly streaming from Gianluigi Buffon after Italy’s goalless draw with Sweden were not the tears to herald the closing of a momentous career with his national team. They were a demonstration of the sheer desolation and grief that will haunt his nation after a 1-0 aggregate play-off loss to Sweden confirmed Italy’s first World Cup qualification failure since 1958; resulting in the swift, anticipated sacking of manager Gian Piero Ventura.

All that remains for the proud nation, who were crowned the World Champions barely eleven years ago, is to stew over where it all went wrong and to contemplate a fresh era under a new manager.

Many of the issues on the pitch prevalent throughout the qualifying campaign were encapsulated in last Monday’s final encounter against a tough disciplined Sweden at the San Siro.

They had dominated their Scandinavian opponents for the majority of the high-stakes tie, but simply lacked the quality and subtlety in the final third; an outgoing problem for Gian Piero Ventura’s side who had scored just three goals in their last six competitive fixtures.  Endless crosses into a packed penalty area, despite a clear height inferiority to Sweden, was symbolic of the lack of a coherent plan to gain the crucial leveller needed.

Equally concerning scenes were playing out midway through the second half on the bench where the polarisation between coaching staff and players was exposed. Daniele De Rossi was reacting angrily to being asked to warm up by one of Ventura’s coaches, gesticulating towards Lorenzo Insigne in the process, appearing to reply, “Why should I go on? We don’t need a draw, we need a win”. Insigne, who was sitting two places along from De Rossi, looking perplexed at the situation, is currently one of the most sought after wide forwards in Europe, having scored 18 league goals for Napoli last season.

Not only did this incident encapsulate the unhealthy dressing room atmosphere, but it was emblematic of rigid tactics and a lack of flexibility. Italy playing in a 3-5-2 formation, meant there was simply no space for a wide forward.

The 3-5-2 formation was a familiar line-up for the majority of these players, having been used to great effect by Antonio Conte throughout Euro 2016. But this is a side who are bereft of their confidence and identity that they possessed in abundance from two summers ago. They have been drained of the dynamism and shape-shifting synergy they oozed under the now Chelsea manager. Ventura’s Italy lost their fluidity with a desperate disconnect between defence, midfield and attack.

The 69-year old tried to accommodate other formations but all decisions proved poor errors of judgement. 4-2-4 was used away to Spain, but was made to look decidedly naïve by an imperious Spanish side who thrashed Italy 3-0 in Madrid. Even a 3-4-3 line-up could only yield a 1-1 draw in a frustrating encounter with Macedonia in Turin.

What many sectors of Italian media find unforgiveable, is that Ventura had more to work with than Antonio Conte before him.

Despite strikers Ciro Immobile and Andrea Belotti being in scintillating form for their respective clubs in the Serie A over the last 18 months; the pair have been stale and have appeared lost under Ventura. Jorginho, one of the primary key assets to current Serie A-leading Napoli, was only handed his competitive international debut on Monday night.

Questions will go back to the integrity and sense behind Ventura’s appointment in the first place.

Despite his age, Ventura held a fairly modest CV.  Arguably, the biggest club he has ever coached was Torino, who he took to the last round of 16 in the Europa League in 2016. Appointed on a substantially lower salary than managerial predecessors, this is also a disastrous qualification failure that will be subject to much criticism labelled towards the Italian F.A.

A new manager will be at the helm for the Euro 2020 qualification campaign, and their first major task will be to accommodate a new era for Italian international football; to identify the long-term replacements for the seasoned 2006 World Cup medallists who will no longer be donning the Azzurri shirt. However, this is undoubtedly a national failure of seismic proportions that will painfully linger long in the memory and will not dissipate swiftly with time.

Home loss to Girona cues the inevitable sacking of Pepe Mel

Home loss to Girona cues the inevitable sacking of Pepe Mel

Pepe Mel’s reign at Deportivo La Coruna ended last week after their 2-1 home loss to Girona proved to be the final straw for the Galician strugglers.

Club president Tino Fernandez reportedly broke the news to Mel via a phone call Tuesday (the morning after the Girona loss), before the club released a statement confirming the news.

Mel becomes the fourth La Liga Coach of the season to lose his job following the dismissals of Luis Zubeldia at Alaves and Fran Escriba at Villarreal, while Manolo Marquez resigned at Las Palmas.

The dismissal is Mel’s third in the space of four seasons (not including the short-term contract that ended by mutual consent at West Brom) and comes as no shock considering his record at Depor- 6 wins in his 24-match spell with only 2 coming in the 10 fixtures in this campaign (a run which included 5 defeats).

The fact that his spell across these last three clubs lasted only 95 matches combined only makes for more telling reading.

Of those 95 matches since the start of 2014, he has guided his teams to only 30 wins and 16 of those were in the 2014/15 season when he earned promotion from the Segunda Division in his second spell with his hometown club, Real Betis.

Mel began his post at Depor on the 28th February and inherited a squad significantly low on confidence and quality- sitting on the brink of the bottom three with only 4 wins from 23 games; having lost the previous 4 consecutive fixtures.

Their lowly position was not entirely unforeseen in Spain as the club had failed to replace attacking talents who had moved on from A Coruna- Lucas Perez  was sold in the summer of 2015 and Ryan Babel’s contract had expired on the 31st December.

The impact felt on the pitch from Mel’s arrival was immediate, rousing Depor to a four-game unbeaten run which included a shock 2-1 home win over title-chasing Barcelona and a crucial win at relegation rivals Sporting Gijon.

Safety was duly secured, but the early “honeymoon period” momentum soon faded as Depor only won twice from their final eleven games in 2016/17.

Mel’s short-term contract was extended in the summer along with a selection of pragmatic signings including the loan signatures of promising young midfielder Fede Valverde from Real Madrid and the return of Lucas Perez from Arsenal to compliment the permanent signings of Costel Pantilimon and Swiss defender Fabian Schar.

However, Depor’s form has continued to worry, earning only 2 wins from the 10 league games this campaign in a run that has included six of these games being played against fellow sides in the lower reaches of La Liga. With a far tougher set of fixtures on the horizon, the Depor hierarchy have decided now is the time to act, confirming that Mel’s position will be taken by B-team boss Cristobal Parallo until the end of the season.

Sampaoli must decide which forward to entrust for vital qualifiers

Sampaoli must decide which forward to entrust for vital qualifiers

The World Cup 2018 qualifying campaign has been a turbulent one for Argentina. A year after losing the Copa America and Lionel Messi briefly announcing his international retirement, the Albiceleste sit outside the automatic qualification spots in 5th place, having made two significant managerial changes that has made for a wholly unstable influence on the team’s performances in the past year.

Edgardo Bauza, the former Sao Paulo and San Lorenzo manager who had been brought into to replace Gerado Martino in August 2016; was sacked after just 8 games into the campaign (3 wins, 2 draws & 3 losses) on the 11th April 2017.

Bauza was swiftly replaced by the much-adorned former Chile and Sevilla manager Jorge Sampaoli. His first two qualifiers in the recent September international break have produced two frustrating draws; a 0-0 stalemate away in Uruguay and a 1-1 draw with Venezuela at River Plate’s El Monumental stadium. Both encounters illustrated a rather sterile looking Argentine attack (as incredible as that may be in a forward-line that boasts the likes of Lionel Messi, Mauro Icardi and Paulo Dybala), that has resulted in the national media very much debating the centre-forward selection for the upcoming crucial fixtures.

Mauro Icardi of Inter Milan has thus far been Sampaoli’s chosen one since his appointment, but is yet to score in any of his 3 caps.

Many pundits and fans from the capital city are calling for introduction of another forward who has recently been awarded his first international call-up; Dario Benedetto of Boca Juniors. 26 goals in 29 games since his move to Boca Juniors in the summer of 2016, Benedetto was rated as the “MVP” that lead Boca to their 32nd national title last campaign. Furthermore, the fact that Argentina’s next tie is a home game against 4th placed Peru and is to be played at “La Bombonera”, the stadium of Boca Juniors, may well lead to convince Sampaoli that he will be worth the gamble.

The other option that Sampaoli has is to recall Sergio Aguero. An individual who (like Messi) has experienced the more unhappy moments of his career appearing for his country and has yet to score in the five appearances he made this in qualification campaign (3 being from the bench). Notably, he faced some stinging criticism from national media last October following his penalty miss in the 1-0 defeat to Paraguay in Cordoba.

However, Aguero is to this day, one of the top Premier League strikers and even by his standards, has enjoyed a wonderfully prolific start to the domestic campaign where he has forged an impressive partnership with the exciting Gabriel Jesus. It was only a saved penalty in Man City’s 2-0 win over Shakhtar Donestsk on Tuesday night that prevented him becoming their all-time top scorer.

His recent tournament performances have been somewhat mixed; having enjoyed a productive 2015 Copa America tournament (beaten in the final by Chile) but a poor 2014 World Cup tournament that ended goalless for him. Nonetheless, his goal record (34) for Argentina certainly cannot be ignored as he is only surpassed by Hernan Crespo, Gabriel Batistuta and Lionel Messi.

With the imperative need for three points from the fixture at “La Bombonera” against Peru on Thursday the 5th October, Aguero’s guile, potency and big-match experience may well make him the best candidate for the encounter; although Sampaoli could be risking a fan backlash and his managerial honeymoon period will almost be over if anything but a win transpires.

La Joya reaches first goalscoring milestone for Juventus

La Joya reaches first goalscoring milestone for Juventus

“At times he’s just unplayable. He’s turning into an extraordinary player”. These were the sentiments of Juventus boss Massimiliano Allegri on forward Paulo Dybala to the club’s official website after their 3-1 away win at Sassuolo on Sunday.

He had just witnessed his prized asset mark his 100th game for the club with a hat-trick at the Mapei Stadium to ensure “The Old Lady’s” return to the top of Serie A; albeit for a matter of hours until Napoli thrashed Benevento 6-0 in the later Sunday fixture.

This was not even Dybala’s first hat-trick of the campaign; having picked up the match ball in the 4-2 away win at Genoa last month and he is now the first Juventus player to score in each of the first four Serie A games of the season (eight goals in total).

It only took until the 16th minute for the Argentinian to register his account in the game and earn his 50th goal in the Black and White, curling a beautiful first-time shot from 25 yards that gave Sassuolo goalkeeper Andrea Consigli no chance.

La Joya doubled their lead four minutes after the break with a delicate, low, toe-punted effort from the edge of a crowded penalty area before Dybala wrapped up his hat-trick and the three points for Allegri’s side just after the hour mark with an exquisite curling free-kick.

Having witnessed their team been torn apart by such a devastating display of talent for 85 minutes, it was significant that the majority of Sassuolo supporters at the Mapei rose in unison to applaud Dybala when his substitution came with five minutes remaining.

During the summer, many Juventus fans and quarters of the Italian press had anticipated a possible move from Barcelona for Dybala post Neymar’s departure to Paris Saint Germain.

Although a formal bid was never forthcoming, the Juventus hierarchy took the correct steps to show their faith in their Argentine playmaker.  A new deal was presented to make him the highest paid player at the club and he was handed the No.10 shirt; formerly donned by the club and country national treasure, Alessandro Del Piero.

“I hope he goes on to do better,” remarked Del Piero.

Dybala’s own personal priority must be to take this imperious form into the big occasions.

Critics of the 24-year old have been intent to point out that younger stars like Kylian Mbappe (18) and Marco Asensio (21) have shown more composure and courage than Juve’s star man who came in for some notable criticism for a somewhat anonymous second-half display in the Champions League Final defeat to Real Madrid in June.

Granted, “La Joya” was also outshone by his Argentine counterpart Lionel Messi in Barcelona’s recent 3-0 thrashing of Juventus in the Champions League at the Camp Nou. But Dybala is the first to admit he is not the next Messi: “Messi has his story; I have mine. We’re two different players.”

But this is a young man still maturing. He may not have been the teenage prodigal footballing genius that Messi was, but he is a supremely talented playmaker that is garnering a clinical scoring record.

It was his decisive penalty miss in the Italian Suppercoppa last year that paved the way for the “mask”- the celebration that we have seen so many times since that is a reference to “Gladiator;” one of his favourite films. “In life you have to get up and fight,” he maintains.

With this resolute attitude, we will no doubt be seeing plenty more of these exuberant celebrations and important goalscoring milestones.

Europa Play-Off Round Preview

Europa Play-Off Round Preview

To some it is the start to a long and arduous journey to the best chance many clubs will have of earning a place in the prestigious UEFA Champions League. To others, it is purely the opportunity to taste a sense of European Cup glory; this is the last round of ties to enter the Europa League.

A total of 29 winners from the third qualifying round and 15 losers from the Champions League third qualifying round will battle it out in a two-legged affair to earn a place in the Europa League Group Stage.

Whilst admittedly it may be a competition to split the neutrals interest, the intriguing nature of this stage of the competition is the matching of some of the continents recently risen minnows with a host of Europe’s so-called “fallen giants”, those clubs who boast a renowned history with an esteemed collection of honours to their clubs’ trophy room (notably AC Milan & Ajax).

The following is a brief preview rundown of each tie; summarising the key facts behind the clashes:

  • FC Utrecht (Netherlands) vs Zenit Saint Petersburg (Russia)- Utrecht are bidding to qualify for the Europa League group stage for the first time since the 2010/11 campaign and will have to be on top form to have any chance of overcoming Roberto Mancini’s Zenit who won the competition in 2008 (known at the time as the “Uefa Cup”) and currently sit at the top of the Russian Premier League.
  • AC Milan (Italy) vs Shkendija (Macedonia) – The only common theme to find between these two clubs is their red and black kit colours. Having completed a host of signings in this summer transfer window, Milan are looking to return to former glories (7 European Cup/Champions League titles). Shkendija, on the other hand have never made it beyond the Europa second qualifying round until this year and are looking to make history by reaching the competition by eliminating one of the giants of the tournament.
  • Ajax (Netherlands) vs Rosenborg (Norway)- Last year’s beaten finalists, Ajax are one of the most successful European clubs having won the European Cup/Champions League 4 times. Rosenborg have never got closer to European glory than when they were knocked out of the Champions League quarter-final in 1996/1997.
  • Altach (Austria) vs Maccabi Tel-Aviv (Israel)- SC Rheindorf Altach finished 4th in the Austrian league last season and are playing in only their second ever Europa League qualifying campaign, having eliminated Chikura Sachkhere, Dinamo Brest and Gent in the three qualifying rounds in the past month. Maccabi Tel-Aviv’s tournament best was qualifying for the round of 32 in the 2013/14 season.
  • Apollon Limassol (Cyprus) vs Midtylland (Denmark) – The Danish side will go into this tie seeking revenge for their elimination by Limassol in the 2015/16 Champions League third qualifying round.
  • Bate Borisov (Belarus) vs Olexandriya (Ukraine)- The reigning champions of Belarus will be looking to secure qualification to have a chance of beating their current Europa League tournament best which they achieved in 2011 when they were knocked out of the round of 32 by Paris Saint-Germain.  Contrastingly, FC Olexandriya are seeking group stage qualification for the first time in their history.
  • Club Brugge (Belgium) vs AEK Athens (Greece)- The runners-up in the Belgian Pro league last season reached the quarter finals of this tournament in 2015 and were beaten in the final back in 1976 by Liverpool. AEK have enjoyed any of their own success with their best efforts in this competition going back to 1977 when they were eliminated by Juventus.
  • Dinamo Zagreb (Croatia) vs Skenderbeu (Albania)- Dinamo have made a record 101 appearances in UEFA qualifying competitions and last played Skenderbeu in their 6-2 aggregate victory over their Albanian counterparts in the 2015/16 UEFA Champions League play-offs.
  • FC Domzale (Slovenia) vs Marseille (France)- Domzale are competing in the Europa qualifying rounds for the fifth consecutive season and are seeking group stage qualification for the first time. A tough tie awaits them against Rudi Garcia’s side whose 2004 UEFA cup final defeat is the closest the French side have been to claiming the trophy.
  • Everton (England) vs Hadjuk Split (Croatia) – After a strong summer of investment, Everton will be confident about qualifying for the tournament for the first time in three years. Despite having competed in the qualifying stages of every season, Hadjuk Split have not reached the group stages since 2010/11.
  • FH Hafnarfjordur (Iceland) vs Braga (Portugal)- FH are looking to become the first Icelandic side to reach a major UEFA group stage and face Braga who have never come closer to winning the tournament than their 1-0 Cup Final defeat to Porto at the Aviva Stadium in 2011.
  • FC Krasnodar (Russia) vs Crvena Zvezda (Serbia) – The Russian side reached the last round of 16 last season (their all-time tournament best), where they were eliminated by Celta Vigo 4-1 on aggregate. Crvena Zvezda who are also known more traditionally as Red Star Belgrade, notably won this tournament in 1991 when they beat Marseille on penalties to lift the trophy.
  • Legia Warsaw (Poland) vs FC Sheriff Tiraspol (Moldova) – Legia were the runners-up in the 2016/17 Ekstraklasa campaign and were beaten in the last round of 32 by Ajax last season. Moldovan side Sheriff have never progressed beyond the Europa group stages.
  • Ludogorets (Bulgaria) vs Suduva FC (Lithuania) – The Bulgarian league champions eliminated another Lithuanian side Zalgaris in an earlier Champions League qualifier this summer. Suduva have battled through three qualifying rounds to reach this tie and are as of yet to ever achieve group stage qualification in this tournament.
  • Maritimo (Portugal) vs Dynamo Kyiv (Ukraine) – Dynamo make the marathon 4,300km journey to Funchal in seek of Europa Group stage football for the first time since 2014. Maritimo are competing in this tournament for the first time since the 2012/13 season after finishing 6th in the Primeria Liga last season and beat Bulgarian side Botev Plovdiv in the last qualifying round.
  • NK Osijek (Croatia) vs Austria Wien (Austria) – The Croatian side are bidding to qualify for the group stage debut, competing at the qualifying stage for the first time since 2012. En route to this tie, Osijek have not conceded a goal. Austria Wien are looking to qualify for the group stages for the first time since the 2013/14 campaign.
  • Panathinaikos (Greece) vs Athletic Bilbao (Spain) – Panathinaikos finished 3rd in the Greek Superleague last year and were eliminated from the Group stage of the competition. 2012 Finalists Bilbao reached the last round of 32 last season, only to be knocked out by Apoel Nicosia (4-3 on aggregate).
  • PAOK (Greece) vs Ostersunds FK (Sweden) – PAOK have consecutively featured in the last four Europa League group stages and face the conquerors of Galatasaray from the second qualifying round, Ostersunds FK; who are enjoying their maiden European campaign, having only climbed from the third tier of Swedish football in 2013.
  • FK Partizan (Serbia) vs Videoton FC (Hungary) – Partizan have not reached beyond the last round of 16 in this competition where they were last eliminated in 2004/05 by CSKA Moscow. Videoton last qualified for the group stages in 2012/13 and were beaten in the third qualifying round last season by FC Midtjylland. These two sides last met in the 1984/85 UEFA Cup third round where Partizan lost 5-0 in Hungary.
  • FC Viktoria Plzen (Czech Republic) vs AEK Larnaca (Cyprus)- Viktoria Plzen’s best Europa performance came in 2013/14 season when they were knocked out of the last round of 16 by Lyon. They face the Cypriat outfit AEK Larnaca who have only qualified for the group stage once in the 2011/12 campaign.
  • FK Vardar (Macedonia) vs Fenerbahce (Turkey)- This tie is Vardar’s first Europa fixture since their qualifying round 1 exit to Anorthosis Famagusta in 2007/08 and will be playing a Fenerbahce side who are under pressure from their own national press to step up after a poor domestic campaign last year. In the Europa competition, the Istanbul-based side were eliminated by Krasnodar in the last round of 32.
  • FC Viitorul Constanta (Romania) vs Red Bull Salzburg (Austria)- Viitorul were crowned Romanian champions last year and are notably owned by national footballing icon Gheorghe Hagi. They face Salzburg who have had to beat Hibernians and Croatian champions Rijeka to reach this final qualifying play off.