The Europa Conference League returns with quarterfinal clashes
The quarterfinal stage of the second-ever UEFA Europa Conference League is upon us. Nine months after the competition got underway in the first qualifying round, eight sides remain looking to inch even closer to a trip to Prague on June 7.
Here is the preview for this round, where the four ties will be discussed. Along with that, a prediction as to who will make the semifinals.
West Ham vs Gent
West Ham’s maiden European clash came in the first round of the 1964/65 UEFA Cup Winners Cup. On that occasion, they faced Gent. Gent’s first European game? That very same match. Now, 58 years later, the sides will meet once again.
It has been a disappointing season for the Irons. Winners of four of their last six in all competitions, their more promising run does not change the fact they sit 14th in the Premier League, three points above the drop zone. That contrasts from their spectacular Europa Conference League showing this campaign. David Moyes’ side has won all 10 matches in the competition so far. Europa League semifinalists a year ago, they will still be ambitious to go all the way this time.
Playing in Europe for the eighth season running, Gent will partake in their second European quarterfinal. Their previous appearance at this stage in Europe saw De Buffalos lose to eventual champions Ajax in the 1991/92 UEFA Cup. Yet, a year on from losing to PAOK in the last 16, Gent has the chance to go farther than they ever have in Europe. Last April’s Belgian Cup winners sit fourth in Belgium as they tussle with Club Brugge for the last spot in the Championship Playoffs.
West Ham went on to win the 1964/65 Cup Winners Cup, defeating Gent 2-1 on aggregate in the first round. Will the Hammers reach a second successive continental semifinal? I feel that they will. With that said, however, this is easily their most difficult opponent in the Conference League thus far, and it would not surprise me to see the Belgians move on. Nevertheless, I see West Ham winning this tie by the slimmest of margins.
Lech Poznań vs Fiorentina
The only side making their quarterfinal bow in a European club competition, Lech Poznań, faces 1960/61 Cup Winners Cup champions Fiorentina. In what many will consider to be the lopsided tie of the round, the Poles will have reason to believe.
The Ekstraklasa holders, Lech has posted some impressive wins in Europe so far. Starting in the first round of Champions League qualifying, John van den Brom’s side has gone from strength to strength as the tournament wore on. Seven clean sheets in nine home games in Europe this year gives reason for confidence. Third in their domestic league, Kolejorz will look to pull off another scalp.
A 1-1 draw at home to Spezia ended a joint record nine successive wins for Fiorentina. The Viola is unbeaten in 12 games, winning 10. In that stretch, Vincenzo Italiano’s men have kept seven clean sheets. Fiorentina is looking to become the first club to reach the final of all UEFA club competitions (European Cup/Champions League, Cup Winners Cup, UEFA Cup/Europa League and Europa Conference League). Given their incredible form of late, it is not unthinkable the Florence-based side could be in this season’s showpiece.
These two clubs met in the 2015/16 Europa League group stage, with Lech’s only victory across the six games coming at the Stadio Artemio Franchi (Fiorentina won the other match). That in mind, however, Fiorentina is still the heavy favorite in this tie and I see them progressing here.
Anderlecht vs AZ Alkmaar
Eleven years on from their round of 32 encounter in the Europa League, Anderlecht and AZ Alkmaar meet again. A great chance is available for both teams, as a rare semifinal appearance is on the line.
Of the teams left in the Europa Conference League, none has more European trophies than Anderlecht’s five (two Cup Winners Cups, one UEFA Cup, two UEFA Super Cups). Yet, for all their domestic and continental success, the Belgians’ quarterfinal appearance overshadows what has been a dreadful domestic campaign. For the first time, Anderlecht will not be part of the title playoffs, and could even miss the European playoffs. The promising sign is Anderlecht has lost just once in their last 10 games and have kept five straight clean sheets.
AZ heads into their sixth European quarterfinal in disappointing form. Since winning at home to Lazio in their round of 16 return leg, the Dutch side has not won any of their three subsequent games. Still chasing Champions League football in the Eredivisie, AZ has won all of their home games in Europe this season. The 1980/81 UEFA Cup runners up fell in the last 16 of the Europa Conference League a year ago. Now, AZ has the chance to reach their first European semifinal since 2004/05.
In both of their Cup Winners Cup winning campaigns, Anderlecht defeated a Dutch club en route to lifting the trophy. AZ defeated Lokeren in their run to the UEFA Cup final in 1980/81. So, who will come out on top in this one? I am going to go with the in-form team here. Anderlecht has not had much fun against Dutch opposition of late, but seeing they have more to play for regarding European football for next season, I will go with Paars-Wit to move on.
Basel vs Nice
A year ago, Basel fell to Ligue 1 side Olympique de Marseille. Flash forward 12 months, and they now face French opposition once more. This time, it comes in the form of OGC Nice, who is competing in their first European quarterfinal in over 60 years.
Aiming for just their second continental semifinal, Basel has had a torrid season by their standards. The Swiss giants have won just one of their last seven in normal time and sit in the bottom half of the Super League. Yet, they are somehow still alive in Europe. A decade ago, they reached the semifinals of the Europa League, losing to eventual winners Chelsea. Now playing in their second European quarterfinal in four years, Basel will need to be at their best to move on.
Playing in their 10th season of European football, Nice has never gone farther than this stage. Losing to Real Madrid in this round of the 1956/57 and 1969/60 European Cups, Les Aiglons have seldom done anything noteworthy in Europe. Sitting ninth in Ligue 1, Nice has struggled lately. Victories over Sheriff Tiraspol last month are their only ones in their last seven outings.
This is the only tie of the Europa Conference League quarterfinals not to feature a former European winner. And while both teams have not been in the best form of late, the opportunity is there to turn things around across the two legs. As for who moves on, I think Basel has more on the line, yet Nice is the stronger team. I will go with the French side to move on and make their first semifinal in European club competition.