The UEFA Europa Conference League is back

The official Europa Conference League matchball (Photo by OZAN KOSE/AFP via Getty Images)
The official Europa Conference League matchball (Photo by OZAN KOSE/AFP via Getty Images) /
Shamrock Rovers
Shamrock Rovers will be one of 32 teams in this season’s UEFA Europa Conference League group stage. (Photo by Oisin Keniry/Getty Images) /

The Europa Conference League is Back With a Bang

There was plenty of skepticism ahead of the first season of the UEFA Europa Conference League as to how it would look and how it would be received.

Fortunately, UEFA’s third tier tournament was an overwhelming success in its inaugural campaign, with AS Roma becoming the first ever champions back in May.

Flash forward a few months and we’re ready to get back under way for this tournament’s second iteration. All 32 teams had to play anywhere between two and eight qualifying round games to get to this point.

Ahead of Thursday’s fixtures, let’s take a deep dive into the tournament format, some facts and figures, and the matches to look forward to in the first round.

The Europa Conference League format

Like the first year of the tournament, the format this season is identical. All 32 teams had to partake in qualifying, with 22 teams winning the playoff round to make the competition proper. They were joined by the 10 teams that lost their Europa League playoff round ties.

Like Champions League and Europa League, teams are split into eight groups of four. Following the six matchdays of group play, the section toppers qualify directly to the Round of 16.

The runners-up are paired with the third place teams from the Europa League group phase in a knockout playoff round. The eight teams that emerge victorious join the Conference League group winners in the last 16 for a straight knockout round.

The Europa Conference League winner earns a beautiful trophy and a ticket into next season’s Europa League group stage, assuming the club did not qualify for the Champions League domestically. In the event where the Conference League winner qualifies for the Champions League (qualifying or group stage) or the Europa League (group stage) via domestic performance, the Dutch Cup winner will take the vacated place in the Europa League proper.

The Conference League will undergo some radical changes come the 2024-25 season, where the group stage will instead be replaced by one big table. There will still be six matchdays in this round, but with four more teams than now. So, do not get too comfortable with the status quo.

Some facts and figures about this season’s clubs

One of the really nice things about the Conference League is the variety of clubs we’ve seen these first two seasons. Just seven of this season’s teams were at this stage a year ago: Partizan Belgrade, AZ, Gent, Slavia Praha, CFR Cluj, Basel and Slovan Bratislava. That is considerably fewer than the Champions League (21) and Europa League (11).

There are also six teams that have won a UEFA club competition before. FCSB won the European Cup in 1985-86. Fiorentina, Anderlecht, West Ham and Slovan Bratislava have all won the Cup Winners Cup at some point, while Anderlecht also has the UEFA Cup in their trophy cabinet. Villarreal claimed their first ever trophy in 2020-21 by winning the Europa League.

Speaking of the Yellow Submarine, they are Spain’s first ever participants in the Europa Conference League, qualifying and main rounds. This is because Unai Emery’s men went all the way in the Europa League, thus earning a Champions League berth last season. They had also finished in the Conference League place in Spain during the 2020-21 season, meaning that Spain’s place in the tournament was abandoned (in such a situation, the place is not passed down to another team from the domestic league).

Since neither Real Betis nor Real Sociedad finished third in the Europa League last fall, it meant that no Spanish team took part in the inaugural Conference League at all. Of course, this is now the case with Russian clubs this season, though that is under very different circumstances.

Teams that will make a European group stage debut in this year’s Europa Conference League are: Hearts, RFS, Silkeborg, Slovacko, Vaduz, Dnipro-1, Djurgården, Ballkani, Žalgiris and Pyunik. In the case of Vaduz, Žalgiris and Ballkani, it will be the first time a club from each of their respective national associations (Liechtenstein, Lithuania and Kosovo, respectively) will taste group stage action in Europe.

The teams in this season’s group stage hail from 28 different associations, one more than a year ago. Belgium, Turkey, Czechia and Romania all have two teams.

A Look at the Groups

Group A pits together Istanbul Basaksehir, Fiorentina, Hearts and RFS. The first two teams will be expected to go through, with Fiorentina heavy favourites to end up on top. Group B has West Ham take on FCSB, Anderlecht and Silkeborg. This could well be a tight group, especially for second spot. It really is anyone’s guess to see how this will all go down.

Group C sees Villarreal grouped with Hapoel Be’er Sheva, Austria Wien and Lech Poznan. The Spanish side should end up on top without much struggle, while second place could go to any of the other three sides. Group D is arguably the group of death, where Partizan, Köln, Nice and Slovacko will go at it. The first three sides mentioned will make this section very interesting.

Group E has another heavy favourite in the form of AZ, while Apollon Limassol, Vaduz and Dnipro-1 all will fancy their chances at joining the Alkmaar club in progression. Group F pits together Gent alongside Molde, Shamrock Rovers and Djurgården. What could be another tight group, Gent and Molde will still be expected to make it.

In Group, Slavia Praha is joined by CFR Cluj, Sivasspor and Ballkani. The Czechs will look to better their quarterfinal showing a year ago, while Cluj will want to get out of the section, something they failed to achieve a year ago. As for Group H, Basel will undoubtedly win the group. Between Slovan Bratislava, Žalgiris and Pyunik, who will end up second is far from certain.

Most interesting first-round games

The game of the round will likely come in Group D, where Köln faces Nice in France. Their only previous meeting came in the 1973-74 UEFA Cup third round where Les Aiglons topped Die Geißböcke 4-1 on aggregate, both sides winning their respective home games. It promises to be a spellbinding tie between the two.

Knockout round participants in recent seasons, Molde hosts Gent in a fascinating Group F encounter. De Buffalo’s got the better of Vålerenga en route to the Conference League group stage last season. Molde is 1-1-2 in 4 previous games against Belgian opponents, having faced Waregem and Standard Liège in the past.

Next. Preview of UEFA Europa League Matchday 1. dark

Lastly, West Ham welcomes FCSB to London, the Hammers not enjoying their past experiences with Romanian opposition. They failed to beat Astra Giurgiu in back-to-back seasons in qualifying, also losing to Steaua Bucharest, FCSB’s former name, in the 1999-2000 UEFA Cup. The only other time FCSB took on an English opponent under their current guise was in the 2016-17 Champions League playoffs, where they lost to Manchester CIty 6-0 on aggregate.