The final four of the second ever UEFA Europa Conference League is upon us.
Two former UEFA Cup Winners Cup champions (Fiorentina and West Ham) are joined by established European sides (Basel and AZ Alkmaar).
Trophies are hard to come by for most of the remaining teams, bringing even more significance to these last few games of the tournament.
In this preview, we take a look through each team’s continental performance this season, their domestic position, previous semifinals in Europe, and a prediction as to who will partake in the final in Prague.
Fiorentina vs Basel
Seven years after their encounter in the 2015/16 Europa League group stage, Fiorentina and Basel will meet once more. The stakes are much higher in this case, as a place in the Europa Conference League final is on the line.
Fiorentina (10-2-2 in Europe this season)
Fiorentina is bidding to end a 22-year major trophy drought. La Viola has two opportunities to change that over the next month. They are the only team left in the Europa League or Europa Conference League who can still win a domestic trophy this term. Whether they can do so is another matter.
Sneaking past Twente in the competition’s playoff round, a 3-0 reverse to Istanbul Basaksehir in the group stage ultimately cost Fiorentina first place in their section. But, that defeat started an impressive nine-game win streak in the Conference League.
Solid performances against Sporting Braga and Sivasspor pitted the Florence-based side against Lech Poznan in the quarterfinals. Despite nearly giving the tie away, Riccardo Sottil and Gaetano Castrovilli scored late on to put them through, despite their winning streak ending on the night.
La Viola’s Serie A campaign also started off on a disappointing note. Sitting in the bottom half for much of the year, they turned things around in 2023, at one point going on a nine-game winning run there as well. Remarkably, Fiorentina sits in eighth spot on goal difference ahead of four teams. Vincenzo Italiano’s side is also in the Coppa Italia final, which takes place a fortnight before the Europa Conference League showpiece.
None of the Conference League semifinalists have more experience at this stage than the Italian side’s eight appearances. In fact, Fiorentina is the fourth club to have reached at least the semifinals of every major European club competition after Roma, Feyenoord and Marseille (includes EC/UCL, UC/UEL, UCWC, and UECL). The 1960/61 Cup Winners Cup champs are looking to join Roma as the only sides to have played in all four European competitions’ finals.
Of the 12 teams left in Europe, Basel is the only side to have never competed in a European final. That said, do not underestimate the Swiss regulars, who will fancy their chances at making a maiden appearance in a continental showpiece.
Like AZ Alkmaar, Basel started their European season in the second qualifying round. They twice came back from first-leg deficits to progress there. In the group stage, they disappointed for their standards, needing a 2-1 victory over Pyunik on Matchday 6 to progress. They have come from behind in each round since, ultimately knocking off Trabzonspor, Slovan Bratislava and Nice to make it this far.
Domestically, things have been incredibly disappointing for Basel, who is 25 points from the already-confirmed champions Young Boys, who also knocked them out of the cup. They have not won three league games on the spin this season, and still have some work to do to ensure they will be playing European football in 2023/24.
Basel has just one other showing in a European semifinal, coming back in the 2012/13 UEFA Europa League. On that occasion, they fell to defeat against eventual winners Chelsea. Outside of that, RotBlau has made three quarterfinals, the most recent one coming in the 2019/20 Europa League. They fell to defeat against Shakhtar Donetsk in Germany.
The 2015/16 Europa League group stage matchup saw Basel get the better of Fiorentina as they earned a win and a draw. The Swiss club’s victory away made the difference in the group, as they beat the Italian side to top spot as a result.
This time around, I see things going differently. Fiorentina has scored goals for fun in the Conference League. Basel, on the other hand, has become comeback kings. While the Viola has had their struggles with consistency, I think they will move on here.
West Ham vs AZ Alkmaar
Unlike the other semifinals across Europe, West Ham and AZ Alkmaar will meet each other for the first time in UEFA club competition. Regardless, this will be a fascinating fixture as both teams will push for a place in the final.
West Ham (11-1-0)
It has been a season of two tales for the Hammers. A disastrous Premier League campaign has been somewhat offset by their European showing. Eleven wins in their 12 Europa Conference League matches has them on the precipice of a first major trophy since 1979/80.
It has been an incredible season in the Conference League for West Ham, who went perfect in their first 10 games in the competition. Viborg, FCSB, Anderlecht, Silkeborg and AEK Larnaca were no match to David Moyes’ Irons, who won both games against each of the five teams. They met their match in the first leg of the quarterfinals, as they were held to a draw at Gent. Yet, an impressive second half showing in the return leg did the trick as the Londoners cruised through.
The contrast could not be more stark when one looks at their Premier League position. They are the only side left in Europe who cannot qualify for a UEFA club competition through domestic performance, highlighting the torrid season they have had in the league. While they are all but assured their top flight status for next year, most West Ham fans will say it was too close for comfort.
Of the European semifinalists this term, none have fewer seasons of continental football than West Ham’s 10. Remarkably, the Irons have reached at least the semifinal in Europe on five of their 10 appearances, including in 2022/23. That is an impressive record for a team who is not a European regular. They have even reached two continental finals – both in the now-defunct Cup Winners Cup – defeating 1860 Munich to win the trophy in 1964/65.
AZ Alkmaar (13-0-3)
Their last trophy coming a decade ago, AZ has continued to be a consistent European side. Only twice since 2004/05 has the Dutch side not contested in Europe in a season. Now, 18 years since their last semifinal, they could very well find themselves in a final.
Overall, AZ has rarely been troubled in the Europa Conference League in 2022/23. Surprise defeats against Dundee United (third qualifying round) and Apollon Limassol (group stage) are the only major blemishes on AZ’s record. They surprised Lazio in the Round of 16, winning both matches. In the most recent round, they needed penalties to defeat Anderlecht after losing the first leg 2-0. That aside, it has been smooth sailing for AZ.
Sitting fourth in the Eredivisie with three games left, it is unlikely that they will finish any lower, meaning they are sure to be back in Europe next season. Only Twente (26) and league leaders Feyenoord (28) have conceded fewer goals than AZ’s 32 in the league this campaign. The Alkmaar side is still chasing the Europa League spot, as they are 2 points behind Ajax, albeit with a vastly inferior goal difference.
AZ’s sole European final appearance came in 1980/81 where they lost to Ipswich Town in the UEFA Cup. As previously mentioned, their other semifinal came in 2004/05 where they lost to Sporting CP in the UEFA Cup on away goals. Riding a 23-game unbeaten run at home in Europe, including victories in all eight home matches this season, AZ surely has the capability to reach the final.
West Ham’s only ever meeting with a Dutch club in Europe came against ADO Den Haag in the quarterfinals of the 1975/76 Cup Winners Cup. The English side prevailed on away goals, losing in the final to Anderlecht. As for AZ, they are 2-5-7 against English opposition in Europe. Their most recent meeting came against Manchester United in the 2019/20 Europa League group stage, where they lost 4-0 away and drew 0-0 at home.
This will be another entertaining game and should be a close contest, seeing how well both have done in Europe this season. I will edge this to West Ham, but do not expect them to easily make the final.