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Your ultimate Europa League guide: Which teams are flying and where are the potential upsets?

Just 62 days after Sevilla triumphed over Inter Milan in Lisbon, the Europa League returns to our screens once again on Thursday nights as we prepare for the start of the group stages. 

With the prize of Champions League football on the table for the winners, clubs across Europe will be going all in to make sure it’s their name is on the trophy come the end of the season.

While the Champions League holds a higher prestige in club football, there are plenty of Europe’s elite taking part in this year’s sister competition, with some club’s path to the knockouts a lot easier than others.

Sevilla won the Europa League last season - and the new campaign gets underway on Thursday

Sevilla won the Europa League last season – and the new campaign gets underway on Thursday

Premier League trio Arsenal, Tottenham and Leicester City all avoided the proverbial ‘group of death’ during this month’s draw but Scottish champions Celtic weren’t so lucky.

AC Milan, Napoli and Roma will also be featuring on Thursday nights while Rangers and Benfica will be two others sides to keep an eye on.

There are a handful of previous winners in this year’s competition while there are plenty of opportunities for a big upset along the way. Here, Sportsmail takes a deeper look at the British teams’ groups, the biggest clashes and potential banana-skins ahead of Thursday night’s big kick-off…

GROUP B – THE TEAMS 

Arsenal

Rapid Vienna

Molde

Dundalk

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GROUP B

Who’s been flying?

Arsenal have enjoyed a strong start to the Premier League campaign after registering three wins from their opening five games. But there’s certainly more room for improvement.

The Gunners are the clear favourites to win the group and should breeze past the competition to reach the knockout stages but stranger things have happened.

Their closest competition will come from Rapid Vienna, who are currently second in the Austrian Bundesliga and two points adrift of Erling Haaland’s former side RB Salzburg.

Like Rapid Vienna, Norwegian side Molde are also sitting in second but have 17 games more, with the domestic season starting back in June.

Irish side Dundalk have also played a fair few games this season but are not expected to advance past the group stages, barring a shock run of results.

Their run to this point is already a fairytale story in its own right, after their qualification through play-offs meant it was only the third time an Irish club qualified for the group stages.

Arsenal will be strong favourites to breeze through their Europa League group

Arsenal will be strong favourites to breeze through their Europa League group

MATCHDAY ONE FIXTURES 

Dundalk vs Molde, 5:55pm kick-off

Rapid Vienna vs Arsenal, 5:55pm kick-off

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Potential upsets

Arsenal are expected to beat their Austrian counterparts in one of the evening’s early kick-offs but Mikel Arteta will be taking nothing for granted, especially with the game being away from home.

Vienna did suffer a coronavirus scare after one of their players tested positive for Covid-19 but the game has been give the green light. 

A win for Dundalk against Ole Gunnar Solskjaer’s former side would be quite the upset but Molde should walk away with the points here.

Stars to look out for

The usual suspects for the Gunners will obviously be the main men to light up the competition with Pierre Emerick-Aubameyang, Nicolas Pepe and Alexandre Lacazette all expected to feature in some form or another throughout the group stage.

Arsenal’s new £45million signing Thomas Partey is expected to make his first start for the club while there will be no sign of Mesut Ozil following his omission from the squad.

Elsewhere in the group, Molde’s forward Leke James has been in fine domestic form, scoring seven goals in 10 league games while team-mate Ohi Omoijuanfo has also managed that total in two more games.

Dundalk’s Patrick Hoban also enjoyed a brilliant start to the domestic campaign in Ireland, where he scored nine goals in his opening seven games, but is yet to make his mark in Europe as of yet.

Arsenal's new big-money signing Thomas Partey is likely to start in Thursday's game in Vienna

Arsenal’s new big-money signing Thomas Partey is likely to start in Thursday’s game in Vienna

GROUP D – THE TEAMS 

Benfica 

Standard Liege

Rangers

Lech Poznan 

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GROUP D

Who’s been flying?

Steven Gerrard’s Rangers will still be on cloud nine after outclassing arch-rivals Celtic.

The 2-0 win encapsulated their brilliant start to the season with Gers sitting pretty at the top of the league and looking like a team ready to finally end Celtic’s dominance in Scotland.

Gerrard’s side had a decent run in this competition last season but are much improved and will be one of the favourites to qualify from this group.

They will however not be the most fancied. Benfica have a strong history of progressing into the latter rounds in the Europa League and will be confident of topping this group.

The Portuguese giants have made a perfect start to the season, winning four of their four league games.

Standard Liege and Lech Poznan will be seen as longshots to get out of this group, and their recent form does little to suggest they stand any better chance.

Liege sit fourth in the Belgian top-flight after a mediocre start while Poznan are teetering in mid-table.

Steven Gerrard's Rangers are flying high after a strong start to their domestic campaign

Steven Gerrard’s Rangers are flying high after a strong start to their domestic campaign

MATCHDAY ONE FIXTURES 

Standard Liege vs Rangers, 5:55pm kick-off

Lech Poznan vs Benfica, 5:55pm kick-off 

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Potential upsets

As strong as Rangers have looked so far this season, beating Benfica will be a tall ask for them.

That’s not to say they couldn’t pull it off.

Rangers have a good record against Portuguese sides and beat Benfica’s rivals Porto in this stage last season.

They also knocked out Braga to qualify for the round of 16 before meeting their match against Bayer Leverkusen.

Although Rangers and Benfica will be expected to walk this group, Standard Liege are dark horses.

They weren’t given a hope in hell last season after being pitted against Arsenal, Frankfurt and Vitoria de Guimaraes but were only one point short from finishing in the top two.

Liege also have fond memories of Portuguese opponents, beating Vitoria de Guimaraes and holding them to a draw in the group stages.

Stars to look out for

Standard Liege have the youngest squad out of these four sides and have a number of promising young talents.

And Nicolas Raskin is perhaps the pick of the bunch. The 19-year-old midfielder has been a key figure for Liege this season and has four assists and a goal from 11 games.

Rangers will already know about the quality Ianis Hagi possesses but if you haven’t heard of this young forward then he is one to keep an eye out for.

Hagi is a silky winger with bags of flair and will pose a threat to Gers’ opponents.

Nicolas Raskin is a creative young player and will be fundamental to Standard Liege's hopes

Nicolas Raskin is a creative young player and will be fundamental to Standard Liege’s hopes

GROUP G – THE TEAMS 

Braga

Leicester City

AEK Athens

Zorya Luhansk 

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GROUP G

Who’s been flying?

Leicester have not made the start Brendan Rodgers would have been dreaming of but still sit in fourth place in the Premier League.  

On their day, the Foxes are too much for any team and would have been licking their lips after being given this draw.

AEK Athens, Braga and FC Zorya. Doesn’t look too difficult on paper. 

Braga will likely pose the biggest threat and are sixth in the Portuguese league after a steady start.

AEK Athens have been in decent form and are in fifth position in the Greek league after two wins from four.

Out of the teams in this group, FC Zorya could find themselves struggling to progress. 

The Ukrainian side have been all out of sorts, winning just one from their opening six league matches. 

Leicester have made far from a dream start but still sit fourth in the Premier League

Leicester have made far from a dream start but still sit fourth in the Premier League

MATCHDAY ONE FIXTURES

Braga vs AEK Athens, 9pm kick-off

Leicester vs FC Zorya, 9pm kick-off

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Potential upsets? 

Leicester should comfortably sail through but when something is supposed to be straightforward, there is always room for complacency. 

Losing any of their matches against these sides would be considered an upset but which of them could cause a shock?

The smart money would be on Braga but a trip to FC Zorya will be no walk in the park, even without fans in attendance.

With their league campaign going so pear shaped, the Europa League offers them an escape and their players will likely be looking to use the competition as a way to kick-start their season.

Stars to look out for 

Former Barcelona hotshot Abel Ruiz was tipped for a bright future but is yet to set the world alight after joining Braga.

He is still only 20-years-old though and will be desperate to make a splash on the European stage. Certainly a player who if he hits his stride could be key for Braga. 

We got a brief look at Luke Thomas last season and with Ben Chilwell out of the picture, this promising young full-back will get more opportunities to showcase his talents.

Abel Ruiz was a young hotshot at Barcelona and is a player worth keeping an eye on at Braga

Abel Ruiz was a young hotshot at Barcelona and is a player worth keeping an eye on at Braga

GROUP H – THE TEAMS

Celtic

Sparta Prague 

AC Milan

Lille 

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GROUP H

Who’s been flying?

The Rossoneri revival is well underway.

With Zlatan Ibrahimovic rolling back the years, Milan are leading the Serie A standings and have fans dreaming of returning to their former glory.

Milan will certainly feel they are the top dogs in this group and it will be up to Celtic, Lille and Sparta Prague to prove them otherwise. 

Lille however will take some beating too if recent form is anything to go by.

They have taken advantage of a sluggish start to the season by Paris Saint-Germain and are currently first in Ligue 1 after their run of seven games.

Celtic, meanwhile, will still be reeling from their underwhelming display in the defeat against Rangers. 

Zlatan Ibrahimovic is leaving an AC Milan revival and they'll want to go deep in Europe this year

Zlatan Ibrahimovic is leaving an AC Milan revival and they’ll want to go deep in Europe this year

Neil Lennon’s men looked off the pace that day and he will be desperate for a response when they kick-off their European campaign with a tricky home game against Milan.

Czech giants Sparta Prague have made the perfect start to their season with six victories in as many games but Europa League football is a different kettle of fish altogether.

MATCHDAY ONE FIXTURES

Celtic vs AC Milan, 8pm kick-off

Sparta Prague vs Lille, 8pm kick-off 

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They welcome Lille for their opening game and will hope the momentum they’ve built up over recent weeks will serve them well.

Potential upsets

Celtic have enjoyed many a famous European nights over the years – as AC Milan know all too well with their star-studded squad in the 2007-08 season losing at Parkhead in the Champions League – and they are more than capable of springing another surprise on Thursday night.

Sparta Prague will be dark horses as well. Their league rivals Slavia Praha have always proved difficult opponents in the Europa League in recent years, and as things stand Prague are above them in the league. 

Stars to look out for

Sandro Tonali was highly coveted in the summer and eventually signed for AC Milan.  

He has settled quickly in Milan and looks a real talent in the middle of the park.

Lille have got their own midfield general in Boubakary Soumare, who has equally attracted the interest of Europe’s best over the past 12 months. 

Celtic’s hopes will be heavily pinned on prolific striker Odsonne Edouard but they’ll have to do without him against Milan after he tested positive for coronavirus. 

Odsonne Edouard is Celtic's main man but they'll have to do without him against Milan

Odsonne Edouard is Celtic’s main man but they’ll have to do without him against Milan

GROUP J – THE TEAMS 

Tottenham 

Ludogorets 

LASK 

Royal Antwerp 

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GROUP J

Who’s been flying?

Like their north London counterparts, Tottenham are favourites to win Group J with anything other than that deemed as a cause for concern.

Jose Mourinho’s men have been firing on all cylinders when attacking this season but their ability to defend set-pieces has seen them concede a fair few goals.

While the quality of opposition in the Premier League is a lot higher, Spurs showed in the qualifying rounds that they’re still susceptible to conceding goals to European minnows.

Ludogorets have started the season well in Bulgaria and are two points adrift of league leaders Lokomotiv Plovdiv in second.

Spurs’ opponents on Thursday, LASK, have endured a sluggish start to the campaign in Austria where they sit fifth in the Austrian Bundesliga but they have already shown their credentials having knocked Sporting out on the way to the group stages.

Belgian side Royal Antwerp are two points off the top of the table in the Belgian Pro League but are fifth behind the likes of Club Brugge and Standard Liege.

Tottenham are favourites to progress from Group J after they were handed a favourable draw

Tottenham are favourites to progress from Group J after they were handed a favourable draw

Potential upsets

Tottenham welcome LASK to White Hart Lane on Thursday and should have the quality to overcome their Austrian opponents.

Ludogorets are being tipped to make it out of the groups but it’s all to play for in Group J with Spurs running out as the groups’ comfortable winners.  

MATCHDAY ONE FIXTURES 

Tottenham vs LASK, 8pm kick-off

Ludogorets vs Antwerp, 8pm kick-off

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Stars to look out for

The Special One is aiming to win this competition for a third time and will likely name near full-strength sides for most of the games.

Benfica loanee Carlos Vinicius is likely to see a lot minutes in order to give Harry Kane a rest while Dele Alli will be promoted back to the squad having sat out several first-team selections already this campaign.

Gareth Bale may also get a run out as Mourinho looks to get the Welsh wizard back to full fitness so it wouldn’t be a surprise to see him on the bench against LASK.

Die-hard fans of all things Premier League may be able to recognise two players in the Ludogorets squad, given their brief stints in England’s top-flight.

Elvis Manu spent time with Brighton between 2015 and 2017 while Jorginho was on Manchester City’s books as a youth player four years ago.

Meanwhile, for Antwerp, the Belgian side has a strong Premier League showing and even have a Leicester City title winner on their hands in Ritchie De Laet. Former Middlesbrough and Blackpool man Faris Haroun now plys his trade in Belgium while Dieumerci Mbokani features up front for Antwerp.

Jose Mourinho has won the Europa League twice and will be targeting a third title with Spurs

Jose Mourinho has won the Europa League twice and will be targeting a third title with Spurs

OTHERS TO KEEP AN EYE ON

Group A

Roma were another European powerhouse that was handed a favourable draw, after they were pitted against the likes of CFR Cluj, Young Boys and CSKA Sofia. Manager Paulo Fonseca shouldn’t counter too many problems, considering he has the likes of Edin Dzeko, Henrikh Mkhitaryan and Pedro at his disposal.

Group C

Bundesliga outfit Bayer Leverkusen are one of the competition’s dark horses but it remains to be seen just how they will cope without Kai Havertz following his £89m move to Chelsea earlier this summer. The arrival of Patrik Schik will give fans hope should they make it out of the group stages while Leon Bailey and Moussa Diaby are danger men on the wings. They were dumped out of the Europa League quarter-finals last season and will have stiff competition in Nice and Slavia Praha in the group stages.

Group F

This could be a difficult group stage for all those involved. Napoli and Real Sociedad will be fighting for top spot while AZ Alkmaar could present a problem. Victor Osimhen, Lorenzo Insigne and Kalidou Koulibaly will lead by example for the Serie A side while David Silva makes a return to UEFA’s sister competition with La Real after years in the Champions League with Manchester City. 

David Silva will be one of the players to watch in Group F with Real Sociedad

David Silva will be one of the players to watch in Group F with Real Sociedad

Original article: https://www.dailymail.co.uk/sport/football/article-8864177/Your-ultimate-Europa-League-guide-teams-flying-potential-upsets.html?ns_mchannel=rss&ito=1490&ns_campaign=1490

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