Winners and Losers from the Europa League Group-Stage Draw
The group-stage draw for the 2014-15 Europa League took place on Friday in Monaco, with 48 teams intrigued to finally find out which continental opponents they will clash with over the next few months.
The draw, undertaken by French World Cup winner Youri Djorkaeff and former Poland goalkeeper Jerzy Dudek, threw up some interesting contests and compelling groups, which should lead to a competitive and surprising first full stage of the competition.
For ease of reference, here is how the final groups panned out:
Group A: Villarreal, Gladbach, Zurich, Apollon
Group B: FC Copenhagen, Club Brugge, Torino, HJK
Group C: Tottenham, Besiktas, Partizan, Asteras
Group D: Red Bull Salzburg, Celtic, Dinamo Zagreb, Astra
Group E: PSV Eindhoven, Panathinaikos, Estoril, Dinamo Moscow
Group F: Inter Milan, Dnipro, St-Etienne, Qarabag
Group G: Sevilla, Standard Liege, Feyenoord, Rijeka
Group H: Lille, Wolfsburg, Everton, Krasnodar
Group I: Napoli, Sparta Prague, Young Boys, Slovan Bratislava
Group J: Dynamo Kiev, Steaua Bucharest, Rio Ave, AaB
Group K: Fiorentina, PAOK, Guingamp, Dinamo Minsk
Group L: Metalist Kharkiv, Trabzonspor, Legia Warsaw, Lokeren
Read on for analysis of some of the winners and losers from Friday's draw.
First things first, it must be acknowledged that calling any team a "winner" or "loser" based on the outcome of this draw should be taken as a relative term—certain clubs or managers could have received better of worse draws than they were ultimately handed, but none of them will be losing a vast amount of sleep over their luck (or lack thereof).
This is professional football: You deal with the hand you are dealt.
Having said that, it is not unfair to suggest that Everton will feel slightly annoyed at their draw, which saw them miss out on a real glamour tie and instead get confronted with three difficult, competitive teams.
Being in Pot 3 meant the Toffees were always likely to face two top sides, but they will wonder why Kuban Krasnodar (a side who drew twice with Swansea in this competition last year) had to pop out of Pot 4 and join them in Group H.
Facing the Russian side also means a long midweek away trip at some point, something else Roberto Martinez would probably have wanted to avoid.
Ties with Wolfsburg and Lille do not come with that particular logistical problem, but they are two strong sides (Wolfsburg in particular) that Everton will do well to defeat. Progressing from this group is achievable but far from the easy prospect Everton could have been handed in an alternate universe.
"It looks a bit like a Champions League group," as Wolfsburg sporting director Klaus Allofs told UEFA.com. "It won’t be easy. That said, the other groups are not really any easier."
On paper, and almost certainly in practice, there is little real difference between the groups Everton and Tottenham were handed. Everton's might be slightly harder, but it comes against at least two teams that reside in comfortable, relatively "local" European cities.
Spurs, in contrast, have a slightly more attainable challenge—but face at least two away trips to formidable Eastern European cities, as they go against Besiktas and Partizan Belgrade.
Asteras Tripoli should be the whipping boys of the group, but in a way that only makes their passage to the next round all the tougher—the games between the three "bigger" players becoming all the more important.
Why are Spurs "winners" then? Well, for a start, they should progress from the group—Arsenal made hard work of Besiktas in their Champions League qualifier but arguably should have won with more ease, while Partizan Belgrade have a passionate fanbase but remain a limited team at this level.
Whereas Everton will be happy to just get through their group, Spurs should be thinking about winning theirs with a little bit to spare.
What is more, the two away trips might prove to be great learning experiences for what is likely to be a youthful selection for this competition. Mauricio Pochettino will get the chance to challenge and harden some of his younger stars on those overseas stages, hopefully bringing long-term benefits for them and the club.
Loser: Steaua Bucharest
After the pain of going out of the Champions League in that penalty shootout defeat to Ludogorets (well done again, Cosmin Moti), Steaua got the consolation prize of a Group J draw alongside Dynamo Kiev, Rio Ave and Danish side AaB.
Not only does the draw lack a certain glamour, there are no guarantees they will find themselves good enough to progress (they possibly should but... well, Ludogorets). As their vanquishers gear up to face the likes of Liverpool and Real Madrid in the lucrative and glamorous surrounds of the Champions League, the pain of that momentous defeat is unlikely to recede any time soon for the Romanians.
Winner: Qarabag FK
If Steaua are still cursing their luck, then Azerbaijan's Qarabag FK must be absolutely elated. Happy enough just to be in the draw, the debutants (who beat FC Twente to qualify for the group stage) ended up in a group alongside Inter Milan, St-Etienne and Dnipro.
That's at least two glamour matches against one of the most renowned sides in Europe—and perhaps another, for those who remember the great St-Etienne sides of the late-60s and 1970s and still revere the club for them—which must have been what they were really hoping for at the start of the day.
Progression may be a daunting prospect but, after beating Twente, they should fear no one and just enjoy their first taste of this stage by facing some great opponents. With a long round trip facing all three of their opponents, success in their home matches should not be ruled out.
Loser: Ronny Deila
Celtic at least avoided facing Legia Warsaw for a second time this season, which must have been a relief. But beyond that the draw will have offered only limited comfort to manager Ronny Deila.
Deila is under scrutiny already at Parkhead, after failing to get the Scottish champions into the Champions League group stage despite being handed a second chance following Legia's controversial disqualification. Celtic lost to Maribor at the final stage, however, condemning them to this competition for the season.
Celtic were drawn against Red Bull Salzburg, Dinamo Zagreb and Romanian side Astra Giurgiu. On paper that is a great draw (had many people ever heard of Astra Giurgiu?!) but that is almost exactly the problem—Deila will now be expected to navigate the group with relative ease, taking Celtic to the knockout stages.
If he fails, the questions about his methods and—more pointedly—his results will only get more aggressive. Deila may know better than most fans how tough this draw really is, but that may not help him in the court of public opinion.
As Daniel Isaila, Astra's coach, told UEFA.com:
It is a group including three current domestic champions. All of them qualified after playing in Champions League qualifying—that can only be added motivation for us.
Having eliminated Lyon, we feel we can get good results against anybody.
Deila will fear such confidence.
Winner: Rafa Benitez
The knives appear to be coming out for Rafa Benitez, following Napoli's inability to reach the group stages of this season's Champions League. Under pressure for the first real time in his tenure, the Spaniard knows he cannot afford too many slip-ups in the immediate future.
In that light, then, he will perhaps be reasonably content with the Europa League draw his team were handed. As a Pot 1 seed it was always likely to be favourable, but he will feel confident Sparta Prague, Young Boys and Slovan Bratislava can be dispatched like... well, young boys playing against men.
Three home wins should be enough to see Napoli safely through to the knockout rounds, a task Benitez should rightfully expect his squad to pull off with some ease. Whether that is what eases the pressure on his job remains to be seen, though.
In a way Sevilla have nothing to lose this season in Europe—after all, they are already winners. As holders of the competition they are one of the main attractions this season, and in a way the pressure is off considering how hard it is to retain any major cup trophy (although they themselves were the last to do it, in 2006 and 2007).
For a team so experienced and storied in the competition, however, a group involving Standard Liege, Feyenoord and Rijeka lacks any real glamour or excitement. What it does contain is tough ties against competitive, hungry teams—ensuring the Spanish club will have to work hard if they want to continue their strong record in the competition.
In a way, however, after winning the competition they now cannot win at this point—if they progress from the group it will be expected, even demanded; but if they go out they will be held up as a famous scalp of one of the other sides.
That was always likely to be the case, but more so than ever after this draw.
Like Napoli, Fiorentina should be increasingly confident of progressing to the knockout stages following their draw—which will see them face Greek side PAOK, French side Guingamp and Dinamo Minsk of Belarus.
Fiorentina are one of those sides most likely to be affected by the recent rule change, one that permits the Europa League winner entry into the Champions League (either the group stages or the final play-off round, depending on circumstances) next season.
Not quite competitive enough to qualify for Europe's biggest competition through Serie A but strong enough on their day to beat everyone the Europa League has to offer—that incentive might see them focus more intently on the competition.
In that regard, an easier opening group will be regarded with gratitude; a chance to play their way into the tournament without being forced to bring their very best football. None of those three sides should be overlooked, but Fiorentina will know something has gone seriously awry if they are not in the knockout stage draw come January.