9th May 2012, the date of the Europa League final. On this day, Atletico Madrid tore apart Athletic Bilbao, most people who don’t remember the game, that well will remember at least one thing, the excellent performance of the ‘hitman’ Falcao.
Since then the summer has come and gone and the leagues have restarted and with the leagues restarting that means only one thing, European football is also back.
It’s been just over four months since that beautiful final in Bucharest and with the return of this season’s tournament we will also see the return of Athletic Bilbao as well as reigning champions, Atletico Madrid.
Not only will we have two teams in this season’s Europa League, no, we will now have three as Levante finished last season in sixth position meaning they entered the Europa League at the play-off round.
Now ahead of the first round of games on Thursday I thought it would be best to let fans of the other teams know what to look out for over the course of their group stage matches with the following three teams, in fact who to look out for within each team.
It’s only fair to start with the Champions of the Europa League and well like every season they will no doubt be a threat in this season’s competition. They’ve won two out of the last three trophies and will be looking for the hat-trick this season.
They were drawn in Group B alongside Hapoel Tel Aviv, Viktoria Plzeň and Académica. Now by the looks of it, it doesn’t seem like the easiest of draws but I think it would be fair to say that Atletico have a great chance of at the very least qualifying.
Atleti have started the season very impressively, after their opening day draw they’ve went on to see off Athletic Bilbao 4-0 followed by narrow 4-3 win over Rayo Vallecano. Goals have seemingly been ‘easy’ to come by for the Madrid side and it doesn’t look likely to stop. Diego Simeone has got them playing his way and he’s so far got it down to a tee. They demolished Chelsea in the Super Cup and are looking very, very impressive in the opening stages of the new campaign, long may it continue.
Main man: Radamel Falcao, yes it’s very obvious to pick Falcao, but the reason it’s obvious is because without doubt he is their main man. Especially in the Europa League, they don’t call him ‘King of the Europa League’ for nothing. He’s been back to back top scorer in the competition within the last two seasons and doesn’t look like he’s about to forget where the net is after his fine display against Chelsea in the super cup.
One to watch: Every time I write about Atleti I go with Thibaut Courtois because he’s quite frankly a fantastic keeper, but this time I think I’ll select Arda Turan. The Turkish midfielder has started the season in good form, already finding the net twice in the opening three matches and will be a tricky player for the opposition. Excellent at holding onto the ball, and never one to shy away from helping the side defend.
Now after writing this piece, Diego Simeone decided it would be best to leave out both Turan and Falcao at home for the first game, nevertheless they will still be the players for future Europa League games.
Prediction: Top the group.
Athletic, the side most wanted to see lift the trophy at the end of the last campaign after their fantastic football throughout, it wasn’t to be. Not to worry they’re back and hopefully they’re back with a bang. They’ll be without influential midfielder/defender Javi Martinez who left Athletic to join German outfit Bayern Munich in the summer, but nevertheless they’re still strong.
They reached the group stages after a very convincing win over Helsingin Jalkapalloklubi (A.k.a, HJK) 9-3 on aggregate in the play-off round. That was after overcoming Slaven Belupo in the third qualifying round 4-3.
They’ve haven’t started the season off too well, winning just one of their opening four matches, drawing two and losing the other. They’ve conceded twelve goals and scoring just eight times. In their first two games they lost nine goals in a 5-3 defeat to Real Betis followed by a 4-0 drubbing at the hands of Atletico. Recently they’ve picked it up ‘a little’ beating Valladolid 2-0 then drawing 3-3 with Espanyol at the weekend.
In their group they’ve been drawn alongside Lyon, Sparta Prague and Ironi Kiryat Shmona. Now I know about two out of the three teams and it’s not the easiest of groups, Lyon will be a big test for this Athletic side especially in their recent form. Sparta Prague will be a tough test and like most teams travelling to Israel for a European tie won’t be easy, yet qualification is essential for Athletic in my opinion.
Main man: The start of the season has been difficult for Athletic, in fact the whole summer has been difficult but one man who has done not too bad is the new man, well I say new man he’s been here twice before its Aritz Aduriz. He’s scored three times in three matches and also has an assist to his name. I know for sure he’ll be able to score at this level; it’s just a matter of Athletic keeping clean sheets.
One to watch: Óscar De Marcos who, last season, showed his true worth in this competition with great performances over the course of the tournament. Two stick out in my mind and that was in the two games against Manchester United, scoring in each leg against the English side. He’s one who has an eye for a cross, has already got a goal to his name this season and the defensive midfielder is one who always breaks up the play. Great player and still very young at just 23.
Prediction: Second in the group.
Well, well. Levante what a story they were last season. They sat top for two weeks, only feel out the top six five times over the thirty-eight weeks and were unbeaten in their first nine league games of last season.
This obviously didn’t last, hence Europa League instead of Champions League. This was through most of their team being let’s not say older, let’s say more experienced. They fell away a little come the latter part of the season, but still held on for Europe, the first time the side has managed such a feat.
In the summer they’ve managed to add a couple of younger players to their side in Ángel, Míchel, Pedro Ríos, Keylor Navas, Pape Diop, Nikos Karabelas, Christian Lell, Dariusz Dudka and Massimo Volta. They did however sell their top goal scorer from last season Arouna Kone, but not to fear as they managed to sign Greek legend Theofanis Gekas and more recently free agent Obafemi Martins.
They started this season with one draw, two defeats and just one win. They haven’t found the net too many times this season thus far, only five goals and conceding a mere eight in the opening four games, it’s put them 14th in the table.
They, like Athletic, had to go through the play-off round to gain entrance into the group stages, but it wasn’t that bad for them as they managed to beat Scottish side, Motherwell, home and away ending the double legged tie with a convincing 3-0 aggregate win.
In their group for this season’s Europa League they’ve been drawn alongside Twente, Hannover 96 and Swedish side Helsingborg. This looks the toughest of the groups for the Spanish sides and I’ll be honest, I’d be surprised to see Levante qualifying from this group.
Main man: With a poor start to the season it’s really difficult to pick a ‘main man’ not many, if any have stood up. If there was one man I had to pin point it would be ‘captain fantastic’ Sergio Ballesteros, the man who beat Cristiano Ronaldo in a foot race last season, yes it was a fluke but still. He’s the captain, the voice of the team the central defender is, with trying to find a better phrase than ‘big unit’, he’s the man in the back line but also one who’s not shy of picking up a card. He’s one who likes to play the ball into the air, well to put it nicer, one to clear the lines, averaging seven clearances per game so far this season.
One to watch: Attacking midfielder Barkero is vital to Levante, he was one of their main men last season, contributing seven goals and eight assists in the league, he’ll be yet again pivotal to this season’s success. He’s featured in every game this season, only one of six players to have done so. The manager obviously has a lot of belief in him and if he can start ticking like he did last season he’ll be a real asset to Levante in this European campaign.
Prediction: Finish third in the group.