• Tom Abadie


The Champions League was back this week, with Manchester City amongst the big teams to perform well in the first leg of their tie. However, the two smaller sister competition are back too: the Europa League and Europa Conference League. The latter is midway through its first season, while the new version of the UEFA Cup has been thriving as of late. While many discredit it for being a lesser competition, which the successful teams are usually teams who were not quite good enough for the Champions League, this is far from being true. Sure, Sevilla seems to win it every year, and they will once again be involved in this year’s competition after crashing out of the top European competition. However, there is a lot more to it.

Last two or three seasons particularly have been very exciting, with top European sides being involved, but more importantly smaller teams creating huge upsets. Think back to Spurs crashing out to Dinamo Zagreb last season? Or Slavia Praha kicking out Leicester. There always major upsets, great storylines and narratives, as well as top talent emerging from smaller leagues around Europe. This is even more the case with the new Europa Conference League, which brings nations such as Azerbaijan into the mix. Arguably with less teams in the Europa League’s first round, the overall quality improves and makes it even more worthy of a watch. When looking at the fixtures, many could argue that most of these teams could be in the last 16 of the Champions League, which vouches for the sheer quality of the competition. So let’s have a look at 2 of the 8 fixtures of this year’s Europa League play-offs.

RB Leipzig vs Real Sociedad

Two teams who seem to play roles of outsiders in this competition but who could really fight a fascinating contest. While Leipzig, like Barcelona or Dortmund, would be now expected to play at least the last 16, Sociedad feel like they are a regular team in this competition. Both teams are certainly squads who like playing attractive football and it should be a game to look out for, where once again the outcome is far from being known.

Red Bull’s German extension has had a tough season. With Jesse Marsch taking over from Nagelsmann in the summer on the bench, the team was a little shaken up but was expected to continue progressing in European football. With the German side getting to a semi-final of the Champions League in 2020, many started have high expectations for the Red Bull side. However, with Paris Saint-Germain and Manchester City in their group, it was going to be a tough ask for them to qualify for the next round. They did however beat Manchester City and really challenged PSG right to the death of their opposition. With a scintillating Nkunku, Leipzig wanted to continue challenging for the national title. Unfortunately, there was a major drop off, with creativity lacking since the departure of Sabitzer to Bayern Munich, as well as many issues in defence. So much so that Marsch was fire deep into the first half of the season, with Domenico Tedesco taking over. December was difficult, but bar a short defeat to Bayern, the start of 2022 has been perfect with 5 wins out of 6 games. They should be a tricky side to come up against in this competition.

Against them is 6th placed Real Sociedad. After a positive string of results at the start of the season they slowed down significantly at winter time. They crashed out in the cup against Betis, losing a second time 4-0 against them in the space of 6 weeks. They did get a win against a poor Atletico side in the previous round but overall, the inconsistency of the past few years has crept back into them. Injuries have certainly not helped, but they will need a lot to get past the German side. On paper, both sides have a lot to value for, with notably Isaak up front in the form of his life, but it will certainly be an interesting tie to follow for the neutrals and supporters.

Prediction: 5-2 for Leipzig on aggregate

Porto vs Lazio

Another proof of how good this competition is, with two top European sides. Porto were victors of Juventus in the Champions League last season, pushing Chelsea to the late minutes of the tie before crashing out in the quarter finals. Lazio on the other hand seem to be growing year after year, and are always a difficult team to face for other Italian giants at a national level. Time to show what they can do at international level now.

Porto have been a force in the latest seasons of European football, yet they failed to qualify in a difficult group with Liverpool, Atletico and AC Milan. The loss in the final match against the Spanish side was the decider for an early exit, although still finishing third and having another shot at going far in a European competition. They lost Luis Diaz to Liverpool in January but they are still a team full of talent. Currently leading in the league table by a point after their win against Sporting last weekend, Porto can count on the legendary Pepe at the back, Iranian midfielder Taremi as well as emerging talent Vitinha. As usual, there is international (particularly South American) talent in this team, it is more an issue of gelling properly together when you lose players at every window. Manager Conceicao has the character and the tactical intelligence to guide this team once again to the top of European football, nearly two decades after Mourinho took Deco and his teammates to European glory.

Lazio on the other hand have been very inconsistent. A regular side in Serie A, it is never sure what to expect of them. A clinical win in the Roma Derby at the start of the season could have shown big promises. Even with the likes of Milinkovic-Savic, Immobile and Luis Alberto, Sarri has not quite found the right balance. While the game plan was clear and efficient under Inzaghi, the departure of the Italian manager to Inter this summer was a real barrier in the progression of the team. It is one thing having a talented squad, it is another to get them to work together. There is hope for Sarri however: even with a poor Juventus side he was able to win titles, like everywhere else where he has been. Whether they can win the Europa League is another question, but they will certainly fight for it. This is very undecided but should be a great tie.

Prediction: 4-2 to Porto on aggregate