The UEFA Europa League, which is the second-tier European intracontinental club championship, gets underway this week after the resumption of football post the lockdown induced due to the threat caused by the Covid-19 pandemic. The prize which is up for grabs is the title, and its winners are gifted with the possibility to compete in the UEFA Champions League next season, which is the tier above the Europa League. At the moment, the UEFA Europa League is seeing its round of sixteen clashes being played out, the winners from which will qualify for the quarterfinal stage.
Some of the top clubs vying for a spot in the next round of the competition are Manchester United (England), Inter Milan (Italy), AS Roma (Italy), Bayer Leverkusen (Germany) and Sevilla (Spain). Other challengers who are willing to put their life on the line for qualification into the quarterfinal stage of the UEFA Europa League are Wolverhampton Wanderers (England), Shakhtar Donetsk (Ukraine) and Olympiacos (Greece).
The rest of the teams who are competing in the round of sixteen stage are LASK (Austria), Istanbul Basaksehir (Turkey), FC Copenhagen (Denmark), Rangers (Scotland), FC Basel (Switzerland), Getafe (Spain), Wolfsburg (Germany), Eintracht Frankfurt (Germany). The teams mentioned later stand a very remote chance of going further in the competition.
Now that the number of sides who are competing in the UEFA Europa League is mentioned, our attention turns to the strongest contenders who will vye for the top spot and try to get into the UEFA Champions League in the next season.
Apart from this incentive, there is also the fact that winning the UEFA Europa League brings in a lot of reputation and financial stability to a club. A manager can also flaunt it as being amongst some of the major silverware that he has procured by sheer will and skill.
CAN THE RED DEVILS DO IT?
All eyes will be on English side Manchester United, who are undoubtedly the downright favourites to win the title this season. They are buoyed by a brilliant run of form of late and their fantastic end to the Premier League season, wherein they pipped rivals Chelsea and Leicester City to finish third behind Liverpool FC and Manchester City in a frantic last-day rush.
While the sides from Stamford Bridge and the King Power Stadium had been consistent throughout the season and had almost earned their right to come behind the title winners Liverpool and defending champions Manchester City, they must have felt cheated by the way the Red Devils came from behind and marched on towards claiming the third spot as their own.
Nothing has come easy for Ole Gunnar Solskjaer’s side, and they have had to work very hard for whatever little success they are enjoying at the moment. The creativity that new signing Bruno Fernandes has infused into the team has played a major role in getting them to where they are at the moment, and he has been helped tremendously by the likes of Paul Pogba and Nemanja Matic, who have held a rock-steady central midfield and fed him balls to his liking.
Last but not the least, attackers Marcus Rashford, Anthony Martial and even the young Mason Greenwood have stood up for their team whenever the occasion has demanded, and this has helped the side from Old Trafford remarkably.
If they manage to proceed to the final and even win it, then it will be the second time in four seasons that they will have done so, after having won the title in 2016/17 under Jose Mourinho. United, mind you, do not have to win the UEFA Europa League title to qualify for the Champions League, as they have finished third in the Premier League and are guaranteed automatic qualification.
INTER MILAN AND ANTONIO CONTE: A STRONG COMBINATION
Italian giants Inter Milan are another side who can count on themselves to be amongst the challengers for the UEFA Europa League title this season. Managed by former Chelsea boss Antonio Conte, Inter are looking very assured at the moment. They managed to finish second in the Serie A table after a flurry of goals in their final-day fixture against Atalanta helped them coast clear off their other rivals. Inter, surprisingly, have a couple of very recent Manchester United expats in Romelu Lukaku and Ashley Young, and both of them have been rock-solid for the side from the San Siro this season.
They also rely heavily upon creative attacking midfielder Christian Eriksen, who moved to Milan from Tottenham Hotspur midway through this season. Giving Lukaku company in the front of the attack is young Argentine striker Lautaro Martinez, who has shown form on and off this season but can be counted upon to rise to the occasion whenever Conte demands him to.
Inter Milan, unlike other teams, are blessed with a very strong defence, as the names of Stefan de Vrij, Milan Skriniar, Danilo D’Ambrosio and Diego Godin will mean to anyone going over their starting elevens throughout this season. Add the versatility of Young to the mix, and they have a potent mix of good defenders and ruthless attackers.
Inter too, like United, do not have to win the title to qualify for the Champions League next season.
CAN THE CUP GO TO THE STADIO OLIMPICO IN ROME?
AS Roma, Inter’s rivals in the Italian Serie A, stand a very good chance of winning the UEFA Europa League this season, although their squad lacks depth and appears to be a bit out of balance. They rely heavily upon the likes of Edin Dzeko and Nikola Kalinic as well as the young Justin Kluivert for attacking inspiration.
There is no doubt that former Manchester United midfielder Henrikh Mkhitaryan, who is on loan from Arsenal at the moment, has had a big impact at the club, but there is very little to go on for manager Paulo Fonseca, who will be trying his utmost to make the Stadio Olimpico faithful happy by the end of this season.
Roma finished fifth in this season’s Serie A and they will need to win the Europa League if they wish to qualify for the UEFA Champions League next season.
However, this is not going to be easy given that they will have to face the likes of Manchester United and Inter Milan towards the dying end of the season. They look pretty strong, but not strong enough to go on to lift the title.
WHAT IS THE VERDICT?
Now that I have dissected the main contenders to win the UEFA Europa League this season, it is also important to predict who the winners are going to be. After a lot of going back and forth and research, I would like to say that Manchester United and Inter Milan stand a strong chance of playing in the final with the former very well placed to win the competition.