Much yet to be decided in Europa Conference League
UEFA’s third tier club competition is now at the penultimate round of group play. So far, four teams have booked their places in the knockout stages, with one already topping their group.
Another 10 teams can ensure continental football in the New Year at the conclusion of this round. On the other hand, two sides know they will play no further part in the Conference League following the group phase. That number could jump to 14 at the end of Thursday’s action.
In this preview of the fifth matchday, we will look at who can go through, who can have their group all locked up, and who could be eliminated after Thursday’s matches.
Early kickoffs (18:45 CET)
Istanbul Basaksehir (10 points), Fiorentina (7), Hearts (3), RFS (2)
Fiorentina hosts Basaksehir as the top two square off in Group A. La Viola will join their opponents in the knockout round should they avoid defeat and/or the other match in the group ends level. As for the Turkish side, they will win the group if they claim at least a point at the Stadio Artemio Franchi. Basaksehir ran rampant with a resounding 3-0 success in the other fixture between the two clubs.
RFS and Hearts meet in Scotland (21:00 kickoff), where the losing side will be eliminated. Should there be no winner, both sides will end their European campaign next week on Matchday 6. The result of this game will be irrelevant if Fiorentina wins their clash. It was Hearts who won the return leg 2-0.
West Ham (12), Silkeborg (6), RSC Anderlecht (4), FCSB (1)
West Ham, already through to the knockout stages, welcomes nearest challengers Silkeborg to the London Stadium (21:00 kickoff). A point will see the Irons advance to the last 16 of the competition as group winners. Silkeborg can join the English side if they win and Anderlecht does not in the other game. West Ham won the other meeting 3-2.
Anderlecht gets set to battle FCSB at home, where 3 points are a must for the Belgian side. A loss of points combined with a Silkeborg victory would eliminate them.
FCSB, already eliminated, will finish last in the group should they lose this match. Neither side found the back of the net on Matchday 2 as the pair played to a 0-0 stalemate.
Villarreal (12), Lech Poznan (5), Hapoel Be’er Sheva (3), Austria Wien (1)
Villarreal is already assured of top spot with two games to spare. They head into this round’s meeting at home to Hapoel Be’er Sheva knowing that they are just playing the role of spoiler. The Israelis will be eliminated if they fail to collect 3 points from their trip to Spain, combined with a Lech Poznan victory in the other match. A win will keep them in contention for second spot going into Matchday 6. The Yellow Submarine prevailed 2-1 last time the teams met.
Austria Wien travels to Poland where they will face Lech Poznan. The Polish champions will join Villarreal in the knockout phase if they win and the Spanish side avoids defeat. Austria Wien must win this match to have any hopes of moving on from the group stage. They will have to do better than the 4-1 defeat they took to the same opponents on Matchday 2.
Partizan Belgrade (8), OGC Nice (5), Köln (4), Slovacko (4)
Remarkably, Partizan is the only one of five unbeaten sides left in the competition to not secure a top two finish as yet. That will change for the Serbian outfit should they defeat their closest pursuers Nice away from home. It would see them top the group with a round to play. They will secure a top two berth if both games finish level. Nice cannot progress nor be eliminated in this round. A 1-1 draw occurred in the other game between the clubs.
The pressure is on for both Köln and Slovacko, who face off in Czechia. Should either side lose, it will spell the end of European football when the group stages are over. A draw will eliminate neither, interestingly enough. Top spot for both will be unattainable if both matches end all square or if Partizan wins their game. The Germans won 4-2 at home when the pair last met.
Late kickoffs (21:00 CET)
AZ Alkmaar (9), Dnipro-1 (7), Apollon Limassol (4), Vaduz (2)
Despite stumbling in their last European match, AZ is still on their way towards getting out of the group. They will do exactly that if they beat Vaduz away (18:45 kickoff). Draws in both matches will also be enough to end up in the top two for sure. If Pascal Jansen’s men win while Dnipro-1 fails to do the same, the Dutch regulars will top the group. Liechtensteiner Cup winners Vaduz must win to keep their feint hopes of progression alive. That will be impossible if Dnipro-1 avoids defeat. AZ won 4-1 at home in the last game between the two.
Dnipro-1 and Apollon Limassol square off in the other group game, and the Ukrainians on the verge of going through. A point will be enough for them to do exactly that. However, they must at least match AZ’s result in order to go into the final round with hopes of topping the section. Apollon must win to remain in contention of moving on. If they win and AZ fails to win, the Cypriot champions could still top the section. Dnipro-1 got the job done the last time they met Apollon, winning 3-1.
Djurgården (10), Molde (7), AA Gent (4), Shamrock Rovers (1)
Djurgården remains unbeaten through four games, and are on the verge of topping their group in their maiden group stage showing. A point on the road at Molde will give them an unassailable lead with a game to go. Their opponents Molde can make the knockout stages as long as they better Gent’s performance. The Swedes won the previous all-Scandinavian affair 3-2.
Shamrock Rovers already know that they cannot get past the group phase. With that in mind, they could play spoilers for visitors Gent. De Buffalos require a win to keep in touch with Molde for second place. If they fail to at least match Molde’s point haul on the night, Gent will be out. It ended 3-0 in favour of the Belgian club in the reverse fixture.
Sivasspor (7), CFR Cluj (7), Slavia Praha (4), Ballkani (4)
The fun thing about this group is that anything can happen still. The top two sides Sivasspor and CFR Cluj meet in Romania, with the winning team assured progression to the next round. If there is a winner in this match and not one in the other, top spot is theirs. The only exception to the previous condition is if CFR Cluj wins by one goal, as that would offset the head-to-head between the two. Sivasspor won 1-0 away in the other meeting.
It is a potential elimination match for Slavia Praha and Ballkani as the pair square off in Kosovo. Lose, and knockout round qualification will no longer be a possibility. A draw keeps both clubs alive in the last round. Remarkably, either side can still win the section as long as both games end level. There was no shortage of entertainment in the other encounter, where Slavia ran out 4-3 winners in a back-and-forth affair.
Basel (7), Pyunik (6), Slovan Bratislava (5), Zalgiris (4)
Basel still heads the section, and can move past the group stage if they defeat visiting Zalgiris. They cannot win the group on the night, but a top two finish will be theirs. The Lithuanian champions will live to see another day as long as they win. Draws in both matches will also keep them afloat. A loss eliminates them, while a draw will not be enough if the other game has a winner. The Swiss regulars won 1-0 away earlier in the group stage.
Finally, Slovan Bratislava welcomes Pyunik. The Armenian champs will become the first from their nation to partake in a European knockout stage if they win along with Basel. Pyunik cannot, however, win the group this round. Any other result keeps both teams alive heading into the final day of play. It was the Armenians who shocked their Slovak guests 2-0 on Matchday 2.