First-ever Europa Conference League final pits Serie A vs Eredivisie
The second European club competition trophy is up for grabs Wednesday night, one week after the Europa League final saw Eintracht Frankfurt hoist the hardware.
AS Roma and Feyenoord will be looking to go into the history books as the first club to lift the UEFA Europa Conference League trophy in the Albanian capital Tirana.
After 10 months of action in this inaugural ECL, we’re down to a battle between Italian giants and a legendary Dutch club.
Here’s a look at the finalists’ seasons, their respective European trophy haul and a projection of how this game might play out.
Road to Europa Conference League Final: Trabzonspor (5-1, ECL playoff round), Group Stage, 1st (4-1-1 versus Bodø/Glimt, Zorya Luhansk and CSKA-Sofia), Vitesse Arnhem (2-1), Bodø/Glimt (5-2), Leicester City (2-1)
Previous UEFA Competition Titles: None
A glorious chance awaits Roma on Wednesday night. After a disappointing domestic campaign that saw the Giallorossi finish only one spot better than the 2020/21 season, José Mourinho‘s side hopes to end the year on a high.
A pair of wins in the playoff round over Turkish side Trabzonspor set up a rather comfortable group on paper. It did not end up being as straightforward as many might have thought, particularly following the 6-1 beating they got in Norway, the worst defeat Mourinho has ever suffered. They still finished first despite failing to beat Bodø/Glimt across the two matches.
Late goals were the theme in the Round of 16 as Roma edged Dutch giant-killers Vitesse Arnhem. An encore meeting with Bodø came in the quarterfinal, but the Italian side was not to be denied this time, overturning a first-leg reverse in convincing fashion at home. Leicester was the challenge in the semifinals, but a win in the home leg made the difference as Roma reached their first European final in three decades.
It was a rather solid start in the Serie A for the capital club. With six wins in their first 10 fixtures, things were looking positive for Mourinho and Co. Them came four losses in sixgames that ultimately cost them Champions League football next fall.
Despite a 12-game unbeaten run in the second half of the league campaign, the Giallorossi only managed to finish sixth, a Europa League place. Interestingly enough, their league finish benefits Feyenoord.
The only player out for Roma on Wednesday night is Henrikh Mkhitaryan, the Armenian plagued by a muscle injury. Outside of that, everyone is available, with no suspensions to note.
Possible starting XI: Patricio – Ibañez, Smalling, Mancini – Spinazzola, Pellegrini, Oliveira, Cristante, Karsdorp – Abraham, Zaniolo
Road to Europa Conference League Final: Europa Conference League qualifying: Drita (3-2), Luzern (6-0), Elfsborg (6-3); Group stage, 1st (4-2-0 versus Slavia Praha, Union Berlin and Maccabi Haifa), Partizan Belgrade (8-3), Slavia Praha (6-4), Olympique Marseille (3-2)
Previous UEFA Competition Titles: 1 European Cup (1969-70), 2 UEFA Cups (1973-74, 2001-02)
This final is Feyenoord’s 19th European game of the season and 55th competitive match overall. The Dutch giants are on the precipice of their fourth European trophy and first in two decades.
De Stadionclub‘s journey in Europe commenced in this competition’s second qualifying round, just after the conclusion of the Euros last summer. A late goal at home against Kosovo’s Drita allowed progression, with less trouble caused by Luzern and Elfsborg in the subsequent qualifying rounds. In what many considered the Group of Death, Feyenorod managed to finish on top and unbeaten at the expense of Slavia Praha, Union Berlin and Maccabi Haifa.
In the Round of 16 Arne Slot’s side cruised past Partizan Belgrade before having a repeat matchup with Slavia in the quarterfinals, akin to Roma with Bodø/Glimt. After an entertaining 6-goal thriller in Rotterdam, costly defensive errors in the return leg made the difference as Feyenoord progressed. Facing Europa League dropouts Marseille in the semifinals, the Dutch side held their nerve away following a narrow win at home the week prior.
Their Eredivisie campaign was much better than last year, where they were part of a four-team playoff to get into Europe. That was not the case this time around. Boasting the second best record in the league defensively, Slot’s side finished third. Since runner-up PSV also won the KNVB Beker, the Europa League place was transferred down to De Stadionclub. Initially due to start in the playoff round of the Europa League, that has upgraded to a group stage place (more on that further down).
There are no players injured nor suspended ahead of the final for Feyenoord, who played their last match two weekends ago (a 2-1 defeat to Twente).
Possible starting XI: Marciano – Malacia, Senesi, Trauner, Geertruida – Kokcu, Aursnes, Til – Sinisterra, Dessers, Nelson
Throughout the inaugural ECL season, my previews always feature predictions as to who will progress. At the start of the knockout round, I boldly stated that I think the winner of this tournament will come from outside of the Big 5 leagues.
The last time a team outside the Big 5 lifted a European trophy was FC Porto in the 2010-11 Europa League campaign, getting the better of local rivals Sporting Braga. Before this year, the most recent final featuring a non-Big 5 team was the 2016-17 Europa League in which Ajax fell to defeat against Mourinho’s Manchester United.
Feyenoord has had a remarkable run to the final, with just one European defeat all season. Like opponents Roma, the Rotterdammers have proven quite the challenge to defeat.
While I may have initially thought the winner of this tournament would not be a Big 5 team, I have now retracted that thought. Mourinho is a mastermind in UEFA club competition finals, with a perfect record. As head coach he has won the Champions League twice, the UEFA Cup, and the Europa League. He also won the Cup Winners Cup while an assistant at Barcelona.
Mourinho just has a way in finals and that will almost surely make the difference here. His opposite number, Arne Slot, has never made a European final as coach, and while Feyenoord has accomplished much more on the continental stage historically, times are changing, with clubs from the biggest leagues increasing the disparity. So, while I would have gone with Feyenoord a few months ago, I will go with Roma to win Wednesday night.
Finally, a reminder that the winner of Wednesday’s Europa Conference League final qualifies for the Europa League next September, irrespective of domestic positions. Since Roma has already done exactly that domestically, should the Giallorossi go all the way, the vacant Europa League group stage spot will be passed down to the cup winner of the next highest ranked association that did not qualify directly for the group stage. That just happens to be The Netherlands, and Feyenoord holds that place. Thus, both teams will be in the Europa League group stage in September regardless of Wednesday’s result.
Football history will be written in Tirana, as one of these storied clubs will become the first winners of the Europa Conference League. Will Roma finally get a taste of continental silverware or will Feyenoord roll back the clock and end up as inaugural champions? An exciting showdown awaits us in what has been an amazing first season in this tournament.