Europa League Preview
Often referred to as a poor man’s Champions League, the Europa League may not contain as many household names as its more illustrious European big brother, but that does not mean the competition is lacking in quality.
British hopes are high this year with Spurs (14/1) currently ranked as the favourites to win the tournament outright, while Everton (20/1) are 6th favourites. Celtic are slightly less favoured at 100/1, but who knows? The Europa League has thrown up surprises in the past. Who expected Fulham to reach the final in 2010, after all?
The early stages of this season’s Europa League should provide great viewing for the neutral and there are quite a few players that I think will shine. So, on that note, here’s a rundown of the 10 players to watch out for:
10) Ivan Perišić // Wolfsburg
Although primarily used as a winger or attacking midfielder, Perišić has a fantastic goalscoring record and is a constant threat going forward. He was Wolfsburg’s second top scorer last season (behind fellow Croat Ivica Olic) and, despite his country’s relatively lacklustre showing in this summer’s World Cup, was named the second best player in the group stages. Wolfsburg have been heavily backed to win the Europa League this season and, with players like Perišić in the side, they have every chance of reaching the latter stages.
9) Georginio Wijnaldum // PSV Eindhoven
When you’re captaining your club at the tender age of 23 you’ve got to be a little bit special. Wijnaldum, a product of Feyenoord’s famed youth set-up, moved to PSV in 2011 and has since established himself as one of the club’s best players; not bad for someone who grew up wanting to be a gymnast as opposed to a footballer. Wijnaldum is on the cusp of becoming a Netherlands mainstay and a solid run in Europa will do his chances no harm at all. I expect this to be his last season in a PSV shirt, however, as he is more than capable of performing at a much higher level.
8) Lorenzo Insigne // Napoli
Insigne is perhaps an odd choice given that he has already been jeered off the pitch by Napoli fans on more than one occasion this season. Napoli’s start in Serie A has been shaky but, having achieved a win and a loss, could be worse. Fans have singled out Insigne as the fall guy after missing a couple of gilt-edged chances during their 0-1 home loss against Chievo, but he’s a young player that is still learning his craft. At 23 he has already proven that he is a top player – he was a part of Italy’s World Cup squad after all – and, if he can add consistency to his game, will really prove his worth in the next couple of years. A few solid performances in the Europa League should get the Napoli fans back on his side.
7) Éver Banega // Sevilla
I visited Valencia a few years ago and was lucky enough to see a game as the Mestalla. While the match itself was a pretty drab affair, my one abiding memory is Banega’s ability to control the game effortlessly. While Valencia are without doubt a big club their financial troubles are well known, so I was expecting him to be the club’s next big-money sale. Fast forward three years and, after a couple of relatively quiet seasons, he is now a Sevilla player having been regarded as surplus to requirements at Valencia. Banega has said that he sees this move as a chance to ‘save his career’ and, if he can perform in the same manner that made him stand out when I visited Spain, then Sevilla have got quite the player on their hands.
6) Thorgan Hazard // Borussia Mönchengladbach
The ‘other’ Hazard was signed by Chelsea in 2012 but has yet to make an appearance for his parent club. In spite of this, he’s made quite the impression during his loan spells. He spent two fruitful years at Zulte Waregem and was actually named as the club captain in 2013, although he refused the armband because of criticism from the club’s fans. His consistent performances over the last couple of years have earned him a loan move to German giants Borussia Mönchengladbach, and he is already proving himself this season. He scored twice in the club’s 7-0 Europa League qualifier win over FK Sarajevo and, although he will most likely never get a chance at Chelsea, will surely be playing for a top European team next season.
5) Romelu Lukaku // Everton
Anyone that has watched Premier League football in recent years knows what this man is capable of. Captured this summer by Everton for a club record £28m, Roberto Martínez will be looking for Lukaku to lead the line both on domestic and European fronts this season. He has strength, power, a reasonable turn of pace for a big bloke and, perhaps most importantly, he worries defenders. European teams will struggle to cope with his presence and that will only serve to benefit Everton. Everton don’t have an easy group – Lille and Wolfsburg are both ranked in the top 10 favourites to win the entire competition – but I think that, if Lukaku performs, Everton should run out as winners of Group H.
4) Mathieu Valbuena // Dynamo Moscow
The Frenchman has been linked with moves to a number of English clubs over the last couple of seasons but, for one reason or another, nothing ever materialised. This summer he made the somewhat surprising decision to switch from Marseille to the ambitious Dynamo Moscow, a team that will be hoping to build upon a successful domestic season in which they finished 4th. Valbuena, now pretty much a constant figure in the French national team, will add some extra flair to a team that already boasts ex-Chelsea man Yuri Zhirkov and fellow Frenchman William Vainqueur. Dynamo could well be a surprise package in this year’s tournament, so are definitely a team to keep an eye on.
3) Erik Lamela // Tottenham Hotspur
Tottenham’s most expensive player has come under a fair amount of criticism for not being able to live up to his £30m transfer fee. In his Premier League appearances last season he didn’t so much play badly, rather he was just utterly anonymous. He did, however, show glimpses of his quality during Spurs’ Europa League run last season, and it was that form that gave Spurs fans hope. Lamela has started this season well, but it’s against European opposition that he will thrive. When given time on the ball he can be devastating and, against lowly teams such as Partizan and Asteras Tripoli, he will be incredibly difficult to stop. Expect him to be Tottenham’s top scorer in Europe this season.
2) Divock Origi // Lille
I tipped Origi to be one of the stars of the World Cup and boy did he deliver. His performances earned him a big money move to Liverpool and, although he was instantly sent back to Lille on loan, his future is bright. At just 19 he is by no means the finished article but he has everything required to become a star; if he can start scoring on a more regular basis then he’s going to be a tremendous signing for Liverpool. Lille probably don’t have a squad capable of going all the way, but I certainly think Origi will shine.
1) Mauro Icardi // Inter Milan
I’m expecting big, big things from this young man. He’s only 21 but already the Argentine looks destined to have a fabulous career. He currently has a ratio of 1 goal every 2 games for Inter, a statistic that is even more impressive when you consider that Inter only finished 5th last season. He’s already started this term strongly having scored a hat-trick against Sassuolo, and looks as though he has all the attributes required to make it as a top striker both for club and, eventually, country. Inter may not be the force they were four or five years ago but they can never be written off entirely. If they’re to go the distance in this year’s competition, expect Icardi to be at the centre of their success.