Europa Conference League Round of 16: Road to Tirana heats up

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) /
Europa Conference League
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) /

Europa Conference League hits Round of 16 stage

We have reached the Round of 16 of the first-ever Europa Conference League season. It has been a high-caliber start to this new tournament, with drama aplenty and several surprises along the way. Now, 16 sides from 12 associations remain with hopes of becoming the tournament’s maiden champions.

In my last preview, I predicted the teams that would join the group winners. PAOK’s defeat of Midtjylland was my only blip among the ties from last month. Can I go one better? Here are the match-ups and what I think will happen.

Gent vs PAOK

These may not be household names, but make no mistake; these are two teams who are no strangers to European competitions. This will be a tight match-up between two sides hoping to make a second-ever quarterfinal appearance in a UEFA club competition.

Currently in their best form of the season, Hein Vanhaezebrouck’s Gent are riding a six-game winning run, conceding just twice in that period. A cup final appearance is on the horizon for De Buffalo’s, while also pushing to compete in the title playoffs in Belgium. Section toppers at the expense of Partizan, Anorthosis and Flora Tallinn, the Belgians come into this one full of confidence.

The Greek side come in to this one off the back of five games unbeaten since their reverse in the first leg of the previous round. Finishing second to FC Kobenhavn and ahead of Slovan Bratislava and Lincoln Red Imps, their record in Europe this season reads 6-3-3. Second place in Greece heading into the championship playoffs, the Asprómavri are in good stead heading into Thursday’s opening leg.

Who will go through?

I give Gent the nod here. Despite a run of eight games in 25 days, they are in superb form and have their most successful coach in club history at the helm. While PAOK will be no pushovers, I see this one going in the Belgian side’s favor.

AS Roma vs Vitesse

One of the Conference League’s revelation clubs, Vitesse will face what possibly could be their most daunting task yet, meeting the highest-ranked team in this year’s tournament, Jose Mourinho’s Roma.

Roma may have finally turned over a new leaf. A weekend victory at home to Atalanta pushed the Giallorossi into fifth place in Serie A. They are no strangers to meeting surprise clubs from the Conference League, having been on the wrong side of a 6-1 drubbing in the group stage at Bodo/Glimt. Despite that, they still ended up atop the group, with wins over CSKA-Sofia and Zorya Luhansk being enough.

The Arnhem club are one of four Dutch sides left in the tournament at this stage. A come-from-behind win against Rapid Wien in the playoff stage added to their impressive European campaign. Wins against Dundalk and Anderlecht in the qualifying rounds led to a challenging group featuring Rennes, Spurs and Mura. Finishing second only behind the French club, Thomas Letsch’s men should have no fear heading into their meeting with the Italians.

All things considered, Roma should go through comfortably. However, looking at both teams’ performances thus far , there has been little to separate them. I will simply go with Roma as they are the favorites in this tie, but it would not shock me if Vitesse pull off another upset.

LASK Linz vs Slavia Prague

Two clubs who have been improving in recent times will go at it. The Czech champs, who have done damage over the last few Europa Leagues, face the Austrians who are becoming a regular in Europe.

Looking at their most seasons since the 80s, LASK are in Europe for the fourth season running. They will have their hands full to make it five next year however. Things have been much better in Europe than the league as they topped their group ahead of Maccabi Tel Aviv, HJK Helsinki and Alashkert. They also obtained the most points of the 32 teams.

One of the teams I called a dark horse for these final stages, Slavia, seem to have found their footing in the last couple of weeks. Six wins on the spin has them on top in Czech football once again, including a weekend victory over local rivals Sparta. Although Randers was the only side to accrue less points during the group stage, Slavia did not have it easy. Second to Feyenoord and finishing ahead of Union Berlin and Maccabi Haifa, many considered their group to be the group of death.

Slavia have shown over the three most recent campaigns they are not one to take lightly in two-legged knockout ties (just ask Sevilla, Leicester and Rangers). They have my backing for this one as a result. I expect LASK to give them a fight, but I doubt it will be enough to top the Czechs.

Feyenoord vs Partizan Belgrade

Two storied teams will face off in what promises to be a fascinating tie. Serbian giants Partizan will battle the former European Cup winners from Rotterdam.

This will be yet another tough match-up for Feyenoord, who had to navigate the hardest group in the Europa Conference League. Winless in two, Arne Slot’s men still find themselves in third with nine games to go in the Eredivisie. They have been hard to break down, boasting their league’s second-best defense. A complete performance over the 180 minutes will be needed in order to get past this tricky Partizan side.

Speaking of the Serbian Superliga pacesetters, they also have been quite difficult to break down. Edging out Anorthosis and Flora for second in group B, it was then Sparta Prague who fell in the playoffs at the hands of Crno-beli. Once European Cup finalists, this is the farthest they have ventured in Europe since 2004/05, where they fell at this stage of the UEFA Cup to eventual winners CSKA Moscow.

Choosing a winner between these two seems like quite the task. Both the Netherlands and Serbia are having fine seasons in Europe, and both have had recent stumbles in big matches. I will give the edge to Feyenoord as I feel they have had the better season so far.

FC Basel vs Olympique Marseille

Two more clubs who are no strangers to European football go at it for a spot in the last eight.

The Swiss giants have had an interesting campaign so far. A few weeks removed from the surprise sacking of Patrick Rahmen, they head into the first leg off the back of an important win at Lugano in the league. Third in the Swiss Super League, they have been much more comfortable in Europe. Topping a group of Qarabag, Omonoia and Kairat, their overall European record this season sits at 9-2-1.

Marseille have had a rather dramatic season, especially in the league. Just one win throughout the Europa League group stage saw them drop to the Europa Conference League, where they comfortably handled Qarabag. They are also third in Ligue 1 following a defeat at home to Monaco over the weekend. Their second leg win in Azerbaijan is also their most recent win.

Who will come out on top here?

I will go out on a limb and pick Basel. At this point, many would pick a team from a Big Five league. However, I smell a Basel win. They are by no means an unknown side, and I think they have the capability to kick out the 1993 European Cup victors.

Rennes vs Leicester City

Here is the match-up that will surely garner the most eyes. Two teams that are not the biggest names in their respective countries, but are among many’s favorites to go all the way.

Les Rouges et Noirs are having another fantastic campaign. Unbeaten in their group, they were guaranteed top spot with a game to spare. They are just one point away from a Champions League spot in Ligue 1, causing Marseille and Nice reason to nervously look over their shoulders. With three wins on the trot, they are in great shape to keep things going.

The Foxes have not tasted the same joy as they had over the last two seasons. Languishing in midtable of the Premier League, the Europa Conference League is the last chance Brendan Rodgers’ side will have of returning to Europe next September. Although they have back-to-back wins, whether they will be able to keep it up on the European stage is another question.

I said it before and I will say it again, Rennes are a team to look out for in this tournament. They have been highly efficient and are great value to go all the way. Leicester may be from the most popular league in the world, but that will not mean as much when you have a Rennes side that has already knocked out Spurs, which is why it’s Rennes for me here.

FC Kobenhavn vs PSV Eindhoven

What a cracking tie we potentially have in store. Two more clubs familiar with this level of football will clash. This would be my choice for tie of the round.

Things seemed to not start off well for Kobenhavn at the start of the year. There were even suggestions of coach Jess Thorup getting the axe. Things have looked quite different since. Three leagues wins since the turn of the year has them ahead in Denmark. They got past their Conference League group with little trouble and keeping this form could very well see them pip this tie.

They face a PSV side who are in even better shape. Since two defeats in four days to start February, it has been seven wins in eight since, including their elimination of Maccabi Tel Aviv in the last round. They are still in contention to win the Eredivisie, 3 points back of Ajax, who they will also meet in the cup final. A dangerous team at their best, it will be intriguing to see what they do against the Danes.

This one is the most difficult one for me to call. I can genuinely see this matchup going either way. I will say this much for sure; I doubt either team will win both matches. I will say Kobenhavn here due to their performances. They have an excellent balance of attack and defense and I think that will be the difference.

AZ Alkmaar vs Bodø/Glimt

Finally, the other big surprise package of the year. The Norwegian champs will have another difficult one taking on the European regulars from the Eredivisie.

Outside of a recent setback in the Dutch Cup to Ajax, AZ are in their best form of the year. They have won eight of 10 this calendar year and have suddenly crept up behind Feyenoord in the league as the two tussle for Europa League places. Randers, Jablonec and CFR Cluj were of no serious trouble for De Kaaskoppen, who topped their group unbeaten.

Champions of Norway for the second year running, Bodø are the only side left in the Conference League to have already guaranteed a European spot for next year. They also had the longest road to get to where they are today, starting while the Euros were still going on. Still, 16 matches later, they are alive and kicking. The previously mentioned 6-1 smashing of Roma in the group phase was their biggest result thus far, and they will hope to cause even more shockwaves over the next two weeks.

While Bodø have been a charming side to watch in this season’s tournament, sadly I think their road will end here. They will certainly go down fighting, but in the end, I think this AZ side are in such good form. Outside of the two matches against Celtic, the Norwegians have not played a competitive match this calendar year and that will likely make all the difference.

UEFA Europa League Round of 16: Close ties all around. dark. Next

The eight ties will take place this Thursday and the following one, with the quarterfinal draw occurring the day after the return legs. Across the matches, there is potential for some real nail-biters. Try not to blink, as the Europa Conference League Round of 16 will be sure to have fans clinging to the edge of their seats.