UEFA Conference League knockout round: The Road to Tirana

A screen shows the logo of UEFA Europa Conference League during the group stage draw at Halic Congress Center in Istanbul, Turkey on August 27, 2021. (Photo by Sebnem Coskun/Anadolu Agency via Getty Images)
A screen shows the logo of UEFA Europa Conference League during the group stage draw at Halic Congress Center in Istanbul, Turkey on August 27, 2021. (Photo by Sebnem Coskun/Anadolu Agency via Getty Images) /
A detailed view of the official Molten ball to be used in the inaugural season of the UEFA Europa Conference League . (Photo by Maja Hitij/Getty Images)
A detailed view of the official Molten ball to be used in the inaugural season of the UEFA Europa Conference League . (Photo by Maja Hitij/Getty Images) /

Europa Conference League is back in action

UEFA’s newest club competition is back for the new year. After a fascinating group phase, the maiden knockout rounds of the UEFA Europa Conference League are only a day away. With that said, here is a look at the teams taking part, my predictions for the round and my favorites to be in Tirana come May.

Knockout round playoffs

Kicking things off, this round will feature the runners-up of the Europa Conference League group stage taking on teams that finished third in the Europa League groups. The Conference League section winners enter at the Round of 16.

First up  are Leicester City and Randers. The Danish side have been out of action since December, giving them no competitive action in two months. The Foxes, meanwhile, have continued to trudge on in the Premier League after being knocked out of the FA Cup. Perhaps not the most high-profile matchup of the round, but if Leicester intend to lift silverware this season, this might be their best chance.

One of two former European Cup winners, Celtic, will meet Norwegian champions Bodø/Glimt. This is new grounds for a Glimt side that humiliated Jose Mourinho’s Roma 6-1 in the fall. Performances like that will make this tie less straightforward than many would expect. The Norwegian league season also kicks off fairly soon. The Scots meanwhile are back on top of the Premiership, with a recent 3-0 win in the Old Firm Derby helping them return to the summit.

The other former European Cup champions, PSV Eindhoven, will face Israeli regulars Maccabi Tel Aviv. A PSV side who has been phenomenal at times this campaign, could easily make a run in this tournament if they keep up the impressive action. Maccabi seem to have found form at the right time. Whether it will be enough to topple the Dutch club is another story.

Olympique Marseille will battle a debutant at European knockout round football, Qarabag. The Azeri Premier Liqa pacesetters finished second in their group, making them the first club from Azerbaijan to reach a European knockout stage. Marseille, on the other hand, were Europa League finalists back in 2017/18. Currently second in Ligue 1, Jorge Sampaoli’s side will fancy their chances at reaching Tirana in May.

Following the drama with Spurs, Rapid Wien had to wait a bit longer to find out their opponents would be Vitesse. Also making their bow at this point in a European season, the Dutch side have had impressive performances in Europe thus far. Rapid snuck into third after edging Genk in the Europa League. While neither have been great in their respective domestic leagues, this poses as an intriguing tie.

Of the remaining ties, Fenerbahce will face Slavia Praha, Sparta Praha take on Partizan Belgrade, and Midtjylland meet PAOK. For those of you, like myself, who keep tabs on the UEFA club (and association) coefficients, any of these matches will be for you. These pairings will determine a lot for Turkey, Denmark, Czech Republic and Greece in their hopes of having two Champions League spots in the near future.

Europa Conference League Section Toppers

Of the eight teams that avoided these two extra matches, AS Roma are undoubtedly the most well-known side. They have struggled for form throughout the football year. The worst of their showings was the previously mentioned 6-1 humiliation they received in Norway. They will need to show their true capabilities if they hope to be the first ever winners of the Conference League.

The team with the most points after the group games, LASK Linz, will start to face bigger challenges. The Austrian side have risen through the ranks in recent years, with a Champions League playoff round appearance being their highest point until now. A run here will be their best achievement in club history.

Feyenoord and AZ Alkmaar have played a large part in the Netherlands having a fantastic year in European football. Both collecting 14 out of 18 points in the fall, they have shown they have the capacity to cause some damage. I can see one or both of them making a semifinal or further. Similarly, Rennes could also be in for a deep run. Having played Champions League football a year ago, football at the Stade de Roazhon Park is at a high.

The remaining group winners, AA Gent, Kobenhavn and FC Basel have been up and down in their respective leagues. All three are no strangers to European football, with both reaching as far as the Europa League quarterfinals in 2019/20. All three have well balanced squads that could result in a run if things open up for them.

Predictions for next two weeks and beyond

For the knockout round playoffs, the following sides will progress: Leicester, PSV, Bodø/Glimt, Marseille, Slavia, Midtjylland, Partizan and Vitesse. Many of these ties are too tight to call. Outside of Leicester, PSV and Marseille, the other five look quite balanced. I think this will be a thrilling round of football for the neutral.

The biggest question is who will be the first champion of this new competition?

This is a tough one to call. Although there are several teams experiencing spring time European football for the first time, there are many teams left who have a great chance of ending up on top. The one thing I will say though, I believe the champion will be one of the 20 teams outside of the top five leagues.

Roma will be considered as the overwhelming favorites, and understandably so. However, my concern for the Giallorossi is will they be able to stay consistent for the seven matches required to win it all? I have not seen enough to be convinced.

The same goes for Marseille. Just one win in the Europa League further suggests they will need to considerably raise their level in order to win it all. I just do not see it happening. Likewise, Leicester have struggled far too much. 

Should the Foxes end up meeting a European regular, I question their ability to persevere.

The only Big Five team I see with a shot is Rennes. Unbeaten in a group featuring Spurs, I feel this could be their moment. They look solid all around and much will be required to topple Les Rouges et Noir.

Outside of Rennes, I am really liking PSV and Feyenoord. I can see one of them reaching at least the semifinals. Of the four Dutch clubs left, only Vitesse really seem out of their depths. AZ would need a little luck, but for me, look out for PSV and Feyenoord.

A dark horse who could make some (more) waves are Slavia Praha. With two Europa League quarterfinal campaigns in three years, this is the type of stage that could suit the Czechs. They might not have been at their best of late, but several more established names have fallen to them in these Europa League runs (looking at you, Leicester and Sevilla).

Maybe the only other teams with an outside chance would be either Kobenhavn or Basel. Both are almost always in Europe, reaching at minimum the group stage, and have high coefficients. Neither have been fantastic in their leagues, but given their experience at this level, they both deserve a shout.

Next. Real Madrid second best against Paris Saint-Germain. dark

The first legs of the knockout round playoffs take place on Thursday, with the return games the same night next week. The Round of 16 draw is on Feb. 25. Before that, the 16 teams in the Europa Conference League will start what they hope will be a long and prosperous Road to Tirana.