The second edition of the Europa Conference League reaches the knockout stages
Back from a long break, the UEFA Europa Conference League is now at the knockout playoff phase. The runners ups from the tournament’s group stage faces off against the third place teams from the Europa League’s equivalent. The UECL section winners are idle until the round of 16.
Here is a preview of the matches, as well as some predictions as to who will progress.
Qarabag vs Gent
Two sides who played in the knockout rounds of the Conference League square off for a place in the last 16.
Four competitive games into the new year and Qarabag find themselves unbeaten, albeit drawing their last two. The Azeri champions played springtime European football for the first time last season, losing in this round to Olympique Marserille. In fact, the Göy-ağlar was just pipped to the Europa League knockouts by Nantes. Their European record on the season reads 3-5-4.
Skipping this stage a year ago, Gent needed a Matchday 6 all-or-nothing match against Norway’s Molde to reach this round. Hein Vanhaezebrouck’s Buffalos are partaking in the knockout rounds in Europe for the fifth time. Only once have the Belgians progressed past the first knockout stage. With just one win in five, Gent will have to pick things up and very quickly.
As for who I tip to move on, I am going with Gent. Both sides have identical records in the group stage, but the Belgian Cup holders have a way of reaching a second gear when required. I feel that will make the difference between them but expect a close tie.
Trabzonspor vs Basel
Three seasons on from their only meetings in Europe, Trabzonspor and Basel reconvene in what will be a pivotal clash.
Consistency is an issue for Trabzonspor, who has not won back-to-back games since December. A 3-1-4 record in Europe proves that very point. Last year’s Turkish champions will be part of continental knockout football for the first time in nearly a decade, a 5-0 aggregate defeat to Napoli in the 2014/15 Europa League was their last tie.
On the other side of the coin, Basel is no stranger to knockout football. They fell at the last 16 a year ago to Marseille, but are back for more. A recent coaching change could be of good use. Basel sit in the bottom half of the Swiss Super League, which is very substandard for them. Failure to win what was considered a favorable group did not make matters any better.
It has not been a smooth ride for either Trabzonspor or Basel this year. Yet, one has the opportunity to make a run here in the Conference League. As for who I predict to prevail, I side with the Turkish side. Finishing third in what was a challenging Europa League group was quite impressive, and could see them using that to their advantage.
Bodø/Glimt vs Lech Poznan
Last year’s Norwegian runners-up takes on the defending Polish champions in what promises to be an intriguing matchup.
Bodø had quite the run in the Europa Conference League a year ago, making it to the quarterfinals before ultimately falling to eventual winners Roma. The first leg in the Arctic Circle will be their maiden competitive match of 2023. With domestic football not starting until April, Bodø can put all their focus into the two legs.
After a sluggish start to the domestic season, things are finally starting to pick up for John van den Brom’s Lech. Winners of five of their last seven, Kolejorz is aiming for their best ever season in Europe, which would be achieved should they prevail. Defeat of already qualified Villarreal in their last UECL game booked them a spot in this round.
Choosing a favorite for this one is another tricky decision. While Bodø had an incredible run last year, they have not looked as sharp this time around. As a result, I think Lech will take advantage and knock off the Norwegians.
Sporting Braga vs Fiorentina
In what most would consider the tie of the round, a first ever encounter will take place between Sporting Braga and Fiorentina.
Twelve years on from their Europa League final reverse to fellow Portuguese club Porto, Braga plays in their first ever Europa Conference League game. Os Arcebispos saw UEL progression fall by the wayside as they surrendered second spot to Union Berlin. Still, all is not lost for Braga, who sit third in Portugal and remain in the cup. They definitely have more than a chance here.
Fiorentina, meanwhile, has not convinced of late. Finishing chances have been a large issue for La Viola, who have lost four of their last six. Sitting in the bottom half of Serie A, Fiorentina has not surpassed a European knockout stage since their semifinal run in the 2014/15 Europa League. Unless they can find their scoring form again, expect that run to continue past this month.
As mentioned, goals have been hard to come by for Fiorentina. The same cannot be said for Braga, who have found the net in eight of their last nine fixtures. So, while this one could go either way, I have to pick Braga to go through as they can find the net when needed.
Lazio vs CFR Cluj
Becoming the third Italian side to compete in the Conference League, Lazio take on CFR Cluj with the hopes of keeping the UECL trophy in Rome.
Most would find it incredibly unlucky that Lazio is not competing in the Europa League. Finishing third in a group where all four teams ended up on eight points, it was the Biancocelesti who fell to this competition. To make matters worse, Maurizio Sarri’s side has not won in four games heading into the first leg. A reversal of fortunes is needed with haste.
CFR Cluj’s European record against Italian teams is rather bleak. The Romanian champions have won just two of 10 games, losing seven. One of those wins did come against Lazio, which knocked them out of the 2019/20 Europa League. Despite being losers of their last two, Cluj is one of the few clubs left in the UECL who could still win a treble. But in order to do that, they will need to get past a strong opponent in Lazio.
Lazio is the considerable favorite in this tie given their European pedigree. Given the squad’s ability, I would be shocked to see them not move on. They have my vote of confidence here but will need to be weary of a defensively sound Cluj team.
AEK Larnaca vs Dnipro-1
The league leaders in Cyprus and Ukraine square off in what is a first ever continental knockout round game. This is the second time the clubs will meet, after AEK got the better of their Ukrianian counterparts in the Europa League playoff round.
A surprise draw at home to Chloraka halted a four-game winning streak for AEK Larnaca, who has only lost one of their last six away games in Europe. A humbling 4-0 reverse at Nea Salamis in the Cypriot Cup is their only defeat in 18, showing just how strong Kitrinoprasinoi have been. Now playing in their first ever continental game in the new year, a glorious opportunity presents itself.
Having not played a competitive match since the end of November, Dnipro-1 has had an incredible campaign. After their UEL playoff loss to AEK, the Ukranians went on to three of their group games. Outside of Europe, they have lost just once, that being their most recent game at Kryvbas. With that in mind, there is no reason to see why they could not spring another big result.
AEK won the battle back in August, but will they win the war? This tie is so finely poised, as results will be key for both countries’ coefficients. I like AEK to repeat their trick in this matchup. The Cypriots have more matches under their belt of late, which I feel could make all the difference again.
Sheriff Tiraspol vs Partizan Belgrade
Nearly two decades on from Partizan’s pair of 1-0 wins over Sheriff, the pair meet again. This time, the stakes are higher.
For the second year running, the Moldovan side reached the knockout stages. It took penalties for Braga to end Sheriff’s European run last February. Now is a chance for Zholto-chornyye to go one better. Winners of the Moldovan Super Liga for seven years running, Sheriff has become regulars in Europe. Their stock continues to grow, and will head into their meeting with Partizan knowing that they could very well have a shot.
Finishing second in what most saw as the group of death, Partizan will play in the Europa Conference League knockout playoffs for the second straight year. They defeated Sparta Praha in this round before falling to Feyenoord in the last 16. Heading into the game off the back of an unexpected 4-0 home loss to Mladost GAT, Gordan Petrić’s side will want to quickly right their wrong.
I give the edge to Partizan. Sheriff continues to be an intriguing story to watch in Europe, but given their opponent’s pedigree, I think it will once again be a step too far for the Moldovan team.
Ludogorets vs Anderlecht
We end with another intriguing fixture as a solid Ludogorets team faces an Anderlecht side who is starting to come into form at the right time.
Participating in knockout round football for the fifth time, only once has Ludo reached the round of 16 in Europe. That came in the 2013/14 Europa League where they fell to Valencia. Nearly a decade on, they have more than a decent shot at making a return. Орлите were 90 minutes away from continuing in the Europa League, but were defeated by Roma. Now in their first ever Conference League clash, they look for a run here.
It has been six years since Anderlecht last graced knockout round football in Europe. Finally, Les Mauves et Blancs are back. They needed a win at Silkeborg last time out to secure their place in this round. Their European run has been the bright spot in what has otherwise been a disappointing campaign. Tenth in the league, Brian Riemer’s side will need to build on their improving performances in order to progress.
Recent results give Anderlecht reason to believe they can prevail. What will make the difference here is how the teams have been at home and away in Europe thus far. Ludogorets has won just one away game in seven, Anderlecht has succeeded in three of five. While the Bulgarians have the superior home record, it is hard to ignore their weak showings away. For that, I give Anderlecht the upper hand but it will be far from straightforward.