The Europa League returns on Thursday night as teams across the continent chase a European trophy and the golden ticket of a passage into next season’s Champions League that comes with it.
Entering into the group stage are 48 teams, with the hopes of progressing into the round-of-32 next February.
As the competition proper kicks off its road to Gdansk in Poland for next May’s final, we look at the groups featuring Manchester United, Arsenal and Wolverhampton Wanderers as well as the other big hitters that feature in the group stage.
A total of 48 teams will enter the group stage in pursuit of winning the UEFA Europa League
Europa League best: Runners-up (2000, 2019)
Key man: Pierre-Emerick Aubameyang
Manager: Unai Emery
Strengths: Arsenal’s attack can breach just about any defence in the world, let alone the ones offered up by Thursday night’s finest. Whether it is Aubameyang, Alexandre Lacazette, or even both, they will not be short of goals. Between them they rifled in 13 on the way to last year’s final.
Weaknesses: Defence. When is it not? Incredibly Arsenal’s defence was the best in the group stage last term conceding just twice. But you try telling your standard Gunners supporter all is fine at the back given their calamities in and around their penalty box in recent matches against Watford and Tottenham Hotspur.
Arsenal will rely on goals from Pierre-Emerick Aubameyang (left) and Alexandre Lacazette
Europa League best: Winners x1 (1980)
Key man: Bas Dost
Manager: Adi Hutter
Strengths: This is the first time Frankfurt are playing consecutive years of European football for over two decades but they have played on the continent enough in that time to have built up an impressive record of hardly getting beaten. Stretching back to the 2006-07 season they have lost just three of their last 33 matches – and one of those was in the aggregate play-off win over Strasbourg last time out.
Weaknesses: The goals have gone. Only Chelsea’s Olivier Giroud scored more than Luka Jovic’s 10 in the competition in last year’s run to the semi-finals, while Sebastian Haller also chipped in with five strikes. Both have since been sold to Real Madrid and West Ham respectively and it is up to the likes of summer arrival Bas Dost to fill the void.
Bas Dost was signed over the summer to replace the goal scoring void at Eintracht Frankfurt
Europa League best: Quarter-final (1980-81, 2009-10)
Key man: Maxime Lestienne
Manager: Michel Preud’homme
Strengths: Despite being knocked out of the group stage last term they were unfortunate to be eliminated with 10 points. This is a good team and they have started the season well too as they sit top of the Belgian league with five wins from seven matches.
Weaknesses: Are they going to win anything with kids? To improve the defence, Zinho Vanheusden returned to the club in an £11million deal from Inter Milan in the summer after a successful loan spell. He is just 20-years-old though and comes into the season following knee surgery.
Maxime Lestienne will be on Standard Liege’s key man to provide a creative spark
Europa League best: Quarter-final (1986-87)
Key man: Pedro Henrique
Manager: Ivo Vieira
Strengths: Fending off the English. In four meetings at home against teams from England they have never lost, avoiding defeat against Southampton, Aston Villa, Bolton Wanderers and Portsmouth.
Weaknesses: Group stages. They’ve never advanced beyond one in their European history. That quarter-final appearance form over 30 years ago was from a time when the Europa League was called the UEFA Cup and was a straight knock-out competition. This is their fourth attempt at trying to advance past one.
Experienced centre-back Pedro Henrique will be crucial to protecting Vitoria SC’s defence
Europa League best: Runners-up (1971-72)
Key man: Ruben Neves
Manager: Nuno Espirito Santo
Strengths: It’s a well balanced squad with no alarming weaknesses and that gives Wolves a solid platform to build a lengthy European tour. Even if a big Champions League team drops into the competition after Christmas, their showings against the Premier League’s so-called ‘big six’ last term means they will fear no one.
Weaknesses: The start to the Premier League season has been poor, leaving them inside the relegation zone. There is no need to panic but if domestic form does not improve then the West Midlands side may be forced to take away their focus from Thursday night commitments.
Wolverhampton Wanderers have many stars in their midfield including Ruben Neves
Europa League best: Quarter-finals (2002-03, 2016-17)
Key man: Mohamed Elneny
Manager: Abdullah Avci
Strengths: It’s an experienced squad Besiktas have built up, with many members having previously played in the Premier League. Elneny is on loan from Arsenal, while they signed Georges-Kevin N’Koudou from Tottenham in the summer who joins Loris Karius and Jeremain Lens previously of Liverpool and Sunderland respectively. Domagoj Vida also played in a World Cup final with Croatia.
Weaknesses: It has been a poor start to the season with just one win from their first four matches and even that was against a team inside the relegation zone. They reside in 13th place in the table under new boss Avci who hasn’t quite got his side settled. Only two clubs have conceded more than Besiktas in Turkey so far.
Mohamed Elneny will spend the season on loan at Besiktas after falling out of favour at Arsenal
Europa League best: Runners-up (2010-11)
Key man: Ricardo Horta
Manager: Ricardo Sa Pinto
Strengths: There are concerns already for Braga following their poor start to the season in Portugal but in Europe they are usually a good bet for getting out of the group stage. In the eight times they have appeared in the group phase of the Europa League, only once have they been eliminated (2016-17)
Weaknesses: The Municipal Stadium. Liverpool have The Kop, Borussia Dortmund have the Wall of Noise and Braga have a big rock. Their home ground is one of the most picturesque in Europe but there are only two stands and it does not provide much in the way of an intimidating atmosphere for visiting teams.
Braga are under new management with former Portugal striker Ricardo Sa Pinto now in charge
Europa League best: Round-of-32 (1972-73, 1976-77, 1994-95)
Key man: Andraz Sporar
Manager: Jan Kozak jr
Strengths: The Slovenian champions have made a good start to their title defence where they went unbeaten, with goals flying in at nearly three-a-game. Striker Andraz Sporar has five of their 22 so far this term, and is already looking to repeat his feat of being the country’s top scorer from last season.
Weaknesses: European football really. Despite entering European competition (Champions League and Europa League) for the past 10 years, they have only made the group stage twice. Last time they featured in the main draw they lost all six matches, scoring one goal and conceding 20. Ouch.
Andraz Sporar, pictured playing for Slovenia, will be Slovan Bratislava’s main goal threat
Europa League best: Winners x1 (2016-17)
Key man: Paul Pogba
Manager: Ole Gunnar Solskjaer
Strengths: The big fish in a small pond – albeit a pond densely packed with 48 teams. No other side in the Europa League had the ability to improve their squad to the tune of over £148million over the summer, and as favourites they will be looking to repeat their 2017 success from the last time they were in the competition.
Weaknesses: They may have a star packed squad but the United side still does not look a settled team under Solskjaer. Focus could be elsewhere too – at least in the group stage of the competition they may be tempted to play a younger side as they look to have more focus on the Premier League.
Odds: 5/1 (fav)
Manchester United won the Europa League the last time they entered in the 2016-17 season
Europa League best: Runners-up (1981)
Key man: Calvin Stengs
Manager: Arne Slot
Strengths: Alkmaaar’s last run in the Europa League proper ended with Lyon handing them their worst ever European defeat with a 7-1 thumping in the round-of-32. Over two years on, the defence at least domestically looks much better. No side has conceded fewer than their three in the Dutch top flight.
Weaknesses: It’s a brave new world for Arne Slot who stepped up from assistant this summer to land his first managerial role following the exit of John van den Brom who left to take over at Utrecht. It’s been a good start in Holland but rivals will be looking to take advantage of his lack of experience as the No 1 on the touchline.
Calvin Stengs creativity on the wing will help provide a major attacking outlet for Alkmaar
Europa League best: Last-16 (2004-05)
Key man: Lazar Markovic
Manager: Savo Milosevic
Strengths: Markovic’s career has gone on a downward spiral since he joined Liverpool in 2014, to the point even Fulham were reluctant to give him a game as they nose dived towards the Championship last term. But the winger is still just 25-years-old and is a talent now back at the club where he started his career. Can former Aston Villa striker Milosevic get a tune out of him?
Weaknesses: Progressed from the group stage the last time they were in the Europa League but have a habit of being eliminated before Christmas. Their previous six appearances in the competition’s group stage saw them make an early exit each time.
Lazar Markovic (left) will be looking to get his career back on track after a poor spell at Fulham
Europa League best: Round-of-32 (2017-18)
Key man: Marin Tomasov
Manager: Roman Hryhorchuk
Strengths: They hit the Europa League ground while running. While most leagues are still getting up to speed, over in Kazakhstan they are in the final run-in to a season that ends in November. Astana are third, are in good form and if then can keep top scorer and assist king Tomasov fit – they could spring a surprise in Group L.
Weaknesses: Could find staying fit for the latter round of matches tough once their domestic campaign ends a month earlier. They face a 20-day break from the end of the season to when they host Manchester United in their fifth group match.
Marin Tomasov has fired in the goals and provided a fair amount of assists for Astana
Best of the rest…
Europa League best: Runners-up (2002-03)
In their group: Lazio, Rennes, Cluj
Key man: Scott Brown
Manager: Neil Lennon
Strengths: It’s business as usual domestically with five straight wins to kick-off their Scottish title defence but there might be something else about Lennon’s side this term. Usually they are poor travellers in Europe no matter where they end up, but they are unbeaten in their four qualifiers away from Celtic Park this term – with three of those victories.
Weaknesses: It just does not happen for Celtic in the Europa League. Even on the rare occasion they do get out of the group stages they are soon eliminated. They have not won a knock-out tie in the proper stages of the tournament for 15 years. Also Cluj, their group rivals, have already knocked them out the Champions League this season.
Veteran midfielder Scott Brown’s experience will be crucial for Celtic in Europe
Europa League best: Runners-up (2007-08)
In their group: Young Boys, Porto, Feyenoord
Key man: James Tavernier
Manager: Steven Gerrard
Strengths: Fortress Ibrox. Rangers have not lost any of their last 13 home games in Europe in a run that extends back eight years. Home form looks like it will be crucial for the Gers because…
Weaknesses: … they are dreadful away from home. In the main stages of any European competition they not have won outside Glasgow since defeating Sporting Lisbon in the last eight during their run to the final in 2006.
Steven Gerrard will hope to guide Rangers beyond the group stage this term
Europa League best: Winners x5 (2005–06, 2006–07, 2013–14, 2014–15, 2015–16)
In their group: APOEL, F91 Dudelange, Qarabag
Key man: Javier Hernandez
Manager: Julen Lopetegui
Strengths: There is something about Sevilla in the Europa League. They are the record winners of the competition having won it an astonishing five times in the last 13 years. It would be foolish to write that sort of pedigree off, especially as they also enter the competition having topped the Spanish table after four games.
Weaknesses: Sevilla may be top buy they are struggling for goals in these early stages of the season, leading them to sign Javier Hernandez from West Ham United on deadline day. The Mexican has struggled to hit the same heights he did when he burst onto the scene at Manchester United at the start of the decade and at 31-years-old his move to Spain could be his last chance to show his best form.
Sevilla are the record five-time winners of the Europa League, last triumphing in 2016
Europa League best: Runners-up (1991)
In their group: Borussia Monchengladbach, Wolfsberger, Istanbul Basaksehir
Key man: Nicolo Zaniolo
Manager: Paulo Fonseca
Strengths: There is plenty of attacking quality in the side including Zaniolo who has caught the eye of Tottenham in recent times, but Roma can also call on Lorenzo Pellegrini, Cengiz Under, Justin Kluivert and Henrikh Mkhitaryan to name just a few of their forward options.
Weaknesses: Roma look particularly weak at the back – conceding on average every 45 minutes at the start of the season, hence the late summer signing of Chris Smalling on loan from Manchester United. The centre-back could take time to settle in the Italian capital though.
Forward Nicolo Zaniolo is a key player for Roma and has attracted interest from Tottenham
Europa League best: Runners-up (1998)
In their group: Rennes, Cluj, Celtic
Key man: Sergej Milinkovic-Savic
Manager: Simone Inzaghi
Strengths: Inzaghi likes to pack five men into his midfield and it’s well balanced in attack as well as defensive areas thanks to some former Liverpool players. Luis Alberto pulls the creative strings from the centre while Reds favourite Lucas is well established screening the back three.
Weaknesses: Ciro Immobile is the main option for grabbing goals but there is not much behind him in terms of support. Former Manchester City striker Felipe Caicedo has been playing as a second striker but is not as prolific as the Italy international.
Sergej Milinkovic-Savic will be key if Lazio are to taste success in the Europa League this term
Europa League best: Winners x2 (2002-03, 2010-11)
In their group: Young Boys, Rangers, Feyenoord
Key man: Ze Luis
Manager: Sergio Conceicao
Strengths: It’s a team blessed with goals. Ze Luis is already their top scorer this term with five strikes and not far behind is Moussa Marega with three. No side in Portugal has more than their 13 goals and they are full of confidence having won their last four games.
Weaknesses: Porto have a respectable European record but they are often seen as a favourable draw in the knockout rounds for elite sides. This could prove a problem for them if Liverpool, who have easily knocked them out of Europe in the last two years, drop out the group stages of the Champions League.
Porto last won the Europa League when it was called the UEFA Cup back in 2003