Europa League: A preview of the elimination round playoffs

A view of the UEFA Europa League logo during the Europa League Final 2021 match between Villarreal CF and Manchester United at Gdansk Arena. (Photo by Mikolaj Barbanell/SOPA Images/LightRocket via Getty Images)
A view of the UEFA Europa League logo during the Europa League Final 2021 match between Villarreal CF and Manchester United at Gdansk Arena. (Photo by Mikolaj Barbanell/SOPA Images/LightRocket via Getty Images) /
Dusan Vlahovic and Juventus take part in the Europa League elimination round playoffs. La Vecchia Signora take on last season’s Coupe de France winners Nantes.  (Photo by MARCO BERTORELLO / AFP via Getty Images)
Dusan Vlahovic and Juventus take part in the Europa League elimination round playoffs. La Vecchia Signora take on last season’s Coupe de France winners Nantes.  (Photo by MARCO BERTORELLO / AFP via Getty Images) /

Second-ever Europa League knockout playoffs on tap

Several months after a dramatic group phase, the UEFA Europa League is back.

We have now reached the elimination rounds of the tournament which again features an elimination round format.

In this round, the teams that finished second in the competition’s group stage face the third-place teams from the Champions League group phase. The UEL section-toppers earned a bye to the Round of 16.

Here is a preview of what is to come in this round, along with a prediction for each of the eight matches.

Barcelona vs Manchester United

We start with what is the poster tie in this round, as two world football heavyweights square off. A repeat of the 2009 and 2011 Champions League finals, Barcelona and Manchester United will meet in the Europa League for the first time. What a tie we have in store.

For the second year running, Barcelona failed to get out of their Champions League group. A year ago, they dispatched Napoli in this round, ultimately falling to eventual winners Eintracht Frankfurt in the quarterfinals. The good news for the Catalans is that they are unbeaten since their reverse to Bayern Munich on Matchday 5 of the Champions League. That includes eight straight victories within 90 minutes. That is fantastic form heading into this clash.

With only one loss in 17, Man United is also in solid form. The Red Devils just missed out on top spot in their Europa League group, being pipped by Real Sociedad on goal difference. Still, Erik ten Hag’s men are the only team left in the competition to be fighting on four fronts. The last time United won a trophy was back in the 2016/17 season, when they won the Europa League. They have a glorious chance to end that silverware drought.

Two historic sides in top form, squaring off for a place in the last 16. Barça leads the head-to-head with six wins to United’s three (plus four draws). However, looking at the pair’s matches in non-Champions League games, United has the upper hand (two wins to one, all in the now defunct UEFA Cup Winners Cup). With all that said, Barcelona has been a challenge to break down defensively. For that reason, I will go with the Blaugrana to progress.

Shakhtar Donetsk vs Rennes

Both sides had a chance to avoid this round, yet here we are.

Faltering to RB Leipzig last November in a winner-take-all Champions League group-stage game, Shakhtar dropped to the Europa League. The Pitmen has not played a competitive match since November though, as the Ukrainian Premier League has been on winter break. Fortunately for them, they can put all their focus in the two matches against Rennes, as league football returns for them right after the return leg. Winners of the last UEFA Cup before the rebrand, Shakhtar has twice reached the semifinals in the Europa League era.

For Rennes, Les Rouge et Noir were pipped to top spot in Group B by Fenerbahçe. As a result, Bruno Génésio’s side has to take part in this round. Losers of five of their last seven, the club does not go into this match in good form. Rennes has never gotten past the last 16 in Europe, and having to take part in the knockout playoffs does not help them achieve that feat.

Shakhtar won the sides’ only other meeting in Europe back in the 2005/06 UEFA Cup. Nearly two decades on, I am expecting the Ukrainian champions to triumph at Rennes’ expense once more. Heading into a pivotal clash with such poor form, worse against such experienced European opposition, does not bode well for Rennes. Shakhtar to progress here.

Ajax vs Union Berlin

On a European front, it is David vs Goliath. Though, looking at recent showings, Ajax and Union Berlin’s meeting promises to be an intriguing one.

The 2016/17 finalists have not had a fantastic campaign so far. Third in their Champions League group, Ajax has not experienced the smooth sailing they’ve enjoyed in recent years. A recent coaching change has seen the club return to winning ways with four victories on the trot. Whether the 1991-92 UEFA Cup winners can keep that positive form in this tie is another matter.

In what is just their third campaign in Europe, Union is having another wonderful year. Second in the Bundesliga at the time of writing, Urs Fischer’s side has won all six competitive games this calendar year. Passing Sporting Braga for second spot back in November, Union will take part in knockout football in Europe for the very first time. They will be up against it once more, but based on what Die Eisernen have shown thus far, they have little reason to be fearful.

Expect a high-intensity pair of games between these two. I am personally liking Union Berlin to progress, seeing just how good they have been for so long. Ajax has been knocked out of Europe at the first knockout stage in three of their last four years, and I see that happening again this time around.

RB Salzburg vs AS Roma

For the sixth season running, Red Bull Salzburg will have knockout round European football to enjoy. This time, inaugural Europa Conference League champions Roma is the opponent.

The Austrian giants had to settle for third spot in their Champions League group, meaning they are back in a competition they know quite well. Semifinalists in 2018/19, they have featured in the Europa League proper in 10 of the 13 editions. Their last showing in the tournament saw them lose in the Round of 32 to Villarreal. The Austrians will surely aim for better this time.

Roma has been up-and-down this year. Last weekend’s stalemate with Lecce highlights that very point. The Giallorossi finally won a European crown last May in Tirana, but face much tougher competition this time around. Semifinalists two years ago, Jose Mourinho’s men have made several deep runs in Europe in recent years. Now would be the time for them to find that form for this tie.

These two have never met in UEFA club competitions before. Roma is 3-3-0 versus Austrian clubs, while Salzburg is 5-2-7 against Italian clubs since Red Bull took over the side. I think based on Roma’s recent pedigree in European knockout rounds they will have what it takes to push through this round. It will not be easy for them, but I tip them to move on.

Juventus vs Nantes

Nearly three decades after their only tie, Juventus and Nantes go at it again in Europe.

It has been another disappointing campaign for the Bianconeri, who were docked 15 points in the Serie A earlier this year. Add that to their Champions League failure, and things are not going according to plan at the Allianz Stadium. A first Europa League appearance in almost a decade shows where things are going for the club.

In what is their first European season since 2001/02, Nantes stormed back in their Europa League group to overtake Qarabag for second. The Coupe de France holders have twice reached the semifinals in Europe, but never in this tournament nor its predecessor. Wins have been hard to come by for Les Canaris, who have only won six games in Ligue 1 thus far.

In recent years, Juve has fallen to Ajax, Porto, and Villarreal in knockout round matches. Those all happened in the UCL though. Surely they will not falter once more at the first knockout hurdle. I will go with La Vecchia Signora to prevail.

Sporting CP vs Midtjylland

Two under-performing sides square off 21 years after their only previous meeting. Sporting and Midtjylland have lacked consistency this season, making this tie a fascinating one.

In what is their last real chance at a trophy this year, Ruben Amorim’s Sporting will need to be at their best. Fourth in Portugal, their hopes of Champions League football in the fall is looking very unfavourable. A recent defeat in the League Cup final to Porto added further insult to injury for the 2004/05 UEFA Cup finalists.

Midtjylland’s crucial Matchday 6 win over Sturm Graz on Nov. 3 was the Danish side’s last competitive win. In the three games since – all of which occurred before the World Cup – they scored just once. That does not smell good for their chances at moving on in this tie. This round, or its equivalent, is the farthest the Danes have ever gone in Europe. Here is a glorious chance to change that.

This will be an interesting clash to keep tabs on given how both teams have been. Both have had considerable luck on their side in Europe so far. Who will have more luck in this round? I will go with what would be the upset pick and put my faith in Midtjylland.

Bayer Leverkusen vs AS Monaco

For the fourth time in Europe, Bayer Leverkusen and Monaco will face off with each other. It is their first knockout tie against one another, and also their first Europa League meeting.

Leverkusen did not start the season well and can perhaps count themselves lucky to still be in Europe. Finishing third over Atletico de Madrid on head-to-head in the UCL, that was enough for Xabi Alonso’s side to stay alive. Eighth in the Bundesliga after 20 games, the 1987/88 UEFA Cup champions still have time to turn the ship around.

Catching form at the right time, Philippe Clement’s Monaco is unbeaten in six since their shocking elimination in the Coupe de France. Skipping this round a year ago, Les Monegasques fell to Sporting Braga in the last 16. This time, Monaco finished second to Ferencvaros in Group H. It will be interesting to see what they do in the knockout playoffs as they push for another round of 16 showing.

Historically, the head-to-head has gone in the Ligue 1 team’s favour (3-2-1). Seeing where both sides are in their seasons, I give Monaco the nod to move on. Leverkusen has not been impressive in Europe at all, and I cannot foresee that changing so soon.

Sevilla vs PSV Eindhoven

We’ll finish things off with the record Europa League winners Sevilla and their clash against PSV Eindhoven.

To say that Sevilla has been terrible this season is an understatement. Although the Rojiblancos have won six of their past nine, they still find themselves in the bottom half of LaLiga. In four of their seven campaigns in the Europa League proper, Sevilla has gone on to win the tournament. The competition’s record winners will still fancy their chances despite their poor showings for the majority of the year.

Consistency has been an issue for PSV over the course of 2022/23. Fourth in the Eredivisie at the time of writing, the 1977/78 UEFA Cup winners are 5-3-1 in the calendar year. Ruud van Nistelrooy’s men are one of several teams left fighting on three fronts. When they are at their best, PSV is a fantastic team to watch. However, the Dutch side just has not been at their peak often enough.

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This is one of those ties that could go either way. Sevilla has the know-how in the UEL, while PSV is an established European club. I think that due to Sevilla having more to play for here, they will get the job done. That said, they will have to be at their very best against a solid PSV team.