Europa League takes center stage next two Thursdays
Three more rounds of play are left before the 2022/23 Europa League final at the Ferenc Puskas Arena in Budapest.
We are now at the last 16, where the remaining sides hailing from nine countries – including host Hungary – will push to become the next Europa League champion. Six former winners of the competition remain, but we could see a first-time winner for the third year running.
This round sees the Europa League group stage winners return, where they will face off against a winner from the knockout round playoffs.
Here is a preview of all eight series, as well as a prediction as to who will progress.
Union Berlin vs Union St. Gilloise
For the second time this season, the two Unions square off in the Europa League. The German and Belgian Unions met in the group stage, where each side earned a 1-0 win on the road. Now, both enjoy their first knockout season in Europe.
Conceding just 3 goals in their eight European games this campaign, Union Berlin will be playing in their ninth and 10th European matches this season after playing a combined 12 games in their two previous appearances.
Playing in their fourth straight Bundesliga season, Urs Fischer’s side still battles on three fronts, as they are competing for the domestic title while also still remaining in the DFB Pokal.
It has been a remarkable recent rise for Union St. Gilloise, now participating in its maiden continental campaign. In 2021/22, they played their first top flight season since 1963. Nearly winning the title, USG has continued to impress across all competitions. Second in Belgium with six games to go, Karel Geraerts’ USG has won five of eight European games so far. Topping Group D, could they pull off another remarkable result?
This will be USG’s second two-legged tie, losing 3-2 on aggregate to Rangers in the Champions League third qualifying round last summer. Union Berlin will play their fifth European tie, having won three of their previous four. While both teams have had their struggles of late, I tip Union Berlin to move on here. The Bundesliga club has been a tough nut to crack defensively, likely making the difference.
Bayer Leverkusen vs Ferencváros
Bayer Leverkusen, fresh off its thrilling knockout playoff success over AS Monaco, faces Hungarian champions Ferencváros. For the second successive season in the Europa League, the two will go at it.
It has not been a great year overall for Leverkusen, who can count themselves lucky to still be in Europe. Taking third place over Atletico Madrid in the Champions League on head-to-head, Die Werkself are sitting outside of the European spots in Germany. UEFA Cup winners in 1987/88, a glorious opportunity is available for Xabi Alonso’s Leverkusen to progress.
With the final in Hungary, Ferencváros will hope to be playing in the showpiece. Making the knockout stages for the first time in six attempts, Fradi will feel like they have nothing to lose. They hold a 14-point lead over nearest challengers Kecskemet in Hungary with 11 games to go. Winning their Europa League section over AS Monaco, Trabzonspor, and Crvena zvezda, the 1974/75 UEFA Cup Winners Cup finalists will fancy their chances.
Ferencváros’ only win in the Europa League last year came at the expense of Bayer Leverkusen, holding their own over both games. There is certainly the chance for an upset here. After all, few had Fradi winning Group H. However, Leverkusen should still end up the victor here, and I tip them to move through.
Sporting CP vs Arsenal
Two teams having contrasting seasons for their standards, Sporting CP will play North London opposition for the second time this campaign. This time, it comes in the form of Premier League pacesetters Arsenal.
Fourth in Portugal, the year has not gone smoothly for Sporting’s standards. After finishing second in the 2021/22 season, things have not looked good for the 2004/05 UEFA Cup finalists. In fact, they can thank Pierre-Emile Hojbjerg for still being in Europe. The Dane hit a last-gasp strike for Spurs against Marseille last November in the Champions League. That kept the Portuguese regulars in Europe. While they did get the job done over Midtjylland last month, this is a much more difficult task for Sporting.
Meanwhile, things have gone fantastically well for Arsenal. Coming off a dramatic weekend win over Bournemouth in the Premier League, Mikel Arteta’s Gunners won five of their six games in Group A to beat out PSV to top spot. Although Arsenal has never won the Europa League/UEFA Cup, they have twice reached the final. In 2000/01, they lost on penalties to Galatasarsay, with Chelsea defeating them in an all-English final back in 2018/19.
Sporting managed to avoid defeat both times against Spurs, winning the home match. However, this is arguably a step up. Arsenal and Sporting met in the previously mentioned 2018/19 Europa League, the Gunners winning in Portugal while drawing in London. That in mind, I fully expect Arsenal to win this tie given their impressive season to date.
AS Roma vs Real Sociedad
For the second time in the 2022/23 Europa League, Roma will face a Spanish club. This time, it is Real Sociedad waiting for the inaugural Europa Conference League champions.
Coming from behind to top RB Salzburg in the knockout round playoffs, José Mourinho’s Roma has won three of four since losing the first leg to the Austrians. The Giallorossi will be weary of their Spanish opponents against whom they fashioned a draw and a loss last season. Defeated by Sevilla at this round three years ago, Roma will look to reach the quarterfinals in Europe for the third year running.
In each of the previous two seasons, Real Sociedad reached the knockout rounds of the Europa League, only to crash out at the first hurdle. The last time they reached a quarterfinal in Europe was in the 1988/89 UEFA Cup. La Real does not have a good record against Italian teams, winning just once across six games. That poor record will need to change against Roma.
This will be a fascinating tie, as it really could go either way. Real Sociedad has conceded just twice all season in Europe, one of the best defensive records left. However, I am going to go with Roma here. Over the last few years, the Giallorossi have proven to be a serious challenge in knockout round football, as evidenced in the Conference League last year. I think that experience will prove to be advantageous to them.
Sevilla vs Fenerbahçe
Another intriguing tie on paper, record UEL winners Sevilla takes on Turkish regulars Fenerbahçe. The two played to a fantastic 5-5 draw over two legs at this stage of the 2007/08 Champions League, where Fener ultimately prevailed on penalties. Now, 15 years on, Sevilla has a chance to exact revenge.
Of all the teams left in the UEL, none has a worse domestic position than Sevilla. The Andalusians sit just off the relegation spots in LaLiga on goal difference. It has been nothing short of a torrid campaign for Sevilla, who only got 5 points in their Champions League group last fall. Six-time winners of the UEL, the last two occasions they played in this competition and failed to win it, they lost in the Round of 16.
Fenerbahçe has enjoyed a solid campaign, which saw them top Group B ahead of Rennes, AEK Larnaca and Dynamo Kyiv. Fener’s best ever European campaign came a decade ago, where they reached the semifinals before falling to Benfica. Given how poor their opponents have been all year, this is a glorious opportunity for Fener to make what would be a fourth European quarterfinal.
I feel this one is written in the stars for a Fenerbahçe win. I really like how this team is playing. Scoring goals, both domestically and in Europe, is seldom a problem for them. Conceding 12 in their last four games, there is not much hope for Sevilla here, despite loving to play in the Europa League.
Juventus vs Freiburg
For the first time, Freiburg will encounter Italian opposition in Europe, as the Bundesliga club takes on a Juventus team that is among the list of favourites to win the UEL.
For the first time since 2013/14, the Bianconeri are not in the UCL last 16, playing Europa League football instead. Back then, Juve reached the semifinal before losing to Benfica. It has been a poor continental campaign for Max Allegri’s men, who have won just two European games in eight. While they may be the favourites in the tie, they can seldom rest on their laurels.
Christian Streich’s Freiburg can play the two legs with no fear whatsoever. It has been another phenomenal year for the Bundesliga outfit. Collecting 14 points in the group stages, Freiburg is competing for a top four spot in the Bundesliga, and is still left in the cup. Playing in just their fifth European season, getting past Juve would see the club reach further than ever before in continental football.
Juventus will have the pressure to perform here, and understandably so. That could make or break the tie. Nevertheless, I predict the Bianconeri will move on. They have much more European know-how, even if they have not shown it in 2022/23. As impressive as Freiburg has been all year, this one will likely be a step too much for them.
Manchester United vs Real Betis
Erik ten Hag’s Manchester United faces off against Manuel Pellegrini’s Real Betis in what promises to be another fascinating tie.
It was a reversal of fortunes for United on the weekend as they were on the wrong end of a 7-0 humiliation at Liverpool. That halted an 11-game unbeaten run for the Red Devils, which saw them win nine of those matches. This is their third meeting with a Spanish club this season, having already met Real Sociedad and, more recently, Barcelona. In fact, the two games against Betis will be United’s 71st and 72nd European match against Spanish opposition, more than any other country.
It is a third different English opponent for Real Betis, who holds a 1-1-4 record against Chelsea and Liverpool in previous meetings. Los Verdiblancos are looking for their third European quarterfinal showing, the previous two coming in their sole UEFA Cup Winners Cup appearances. Betis, which fell to eventual winners Eintracht Frankfurt at this stage a year ago, won five of six group games this year.
Another tight game to call. United needs a response after the hiding they took on the weekend, while Betis is still chasing a top four spot in Spain. I expect the Red Devils to prevail here, as a reaction will be expected from them.
Shakhtar Donetsk vs Feyenoord
This tie has two unique features of it: the only one to see two teams from outside the “Big 5” leagues, and the only one to pit two former winners against each other. In some respects, Shakhtar Donetsk and Feyenoord could be considered the tie of the round.
The Pitmen triumphed in the last ever UEFA Cup season before the name change and revamp. Since then, they have reached the semifinals twice, most recently in 2019/20. Shakhtar is no stranger to knockout round football, having almost qualified for the Champions League last 16. The Ukrainians will surely be up for it, as they certainly have the capability to go through.
Finishing atop Group F despite having the same points as everyone else, Feyenoord looks to make a second consecutive European final. Last May, the Dutch club lost to Roma in the Conference League showpiece in Tirana. Now, the 2001/02 UEFA Cup winners aim for a first quarterfinal showing in this competition since their title-winning campaign.
Shakhtar won both meetings between the two sides back in the Champions League in 2018/19. That was a different time though. I feel Feyenoord is in a better position now than they were back then. So, I have Arne Slot’s team to make the quarterfinals in what will surely be a must-watch.