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With Sevilla in CL, Europa League looks for new winner

With Sevilla in CL, Europa League looks for new winner

LONDON: Sevilla reigned supreme in the Europa League in the last two seasons but their latest success earned them a spot in the Champions League, meaning European football’s second-tier competition is looking for a new winner from a healthy list.

Ukraine’s Dnipro Dnipropetrovsk performed a miracle in reaching last term’s final despite the turmoil in their country and they pushed Sevilla all the way in a 3-2 defeat in Warsaw.

They start the road to May’s final in Basel with a tough Group ‘G’ opener on Thursday at home to Italy’s Lazio, who were primed for the Champions League before losing to Bayer Leverkusen in the playoffs.

Italy provided both losing semi-finalists last season in Napoli and Fiorentina. They are back for another crack this term with the lure of a Champions League spot for the overall winners adding spice to a previously maligned competition.

Former winners Napoli take on Club Brugge in their first Group ‘D’ match with both sides having been eliminated last season by Dnipro while Fiorentina coach Paulo Sousa comes face-to-face with former employers FC Basel in Group ‘I’.

The Portuguese coached Basel to the Swiss title before leaving for Florence in the summer.

Thomas Tuchel will also be keen to catch the eye for his new club with early favourites Borussia Dortmund welcoming FC Krasnodar in Group ‘C’.

Under the stewardship of new coach Tuchel, the Germans have put last season’s troubles behind them, winning nine games in a row, and few would bet on Krasnodar halting that run at Signal Iduna Park.

Liverpool, who won the competition’s pre-cursor the UEFA Cup in 2001, are back in the Europa League group stage after soaking in the glitz of the Champions League last season and Brendan Rodgers’ men begin with arguably their toughest fixture of Group ‘B’ at Bordeaux.

The other English side in the group stage, Tottenham Hotspur, face what on paper looks like their easiest tie at home to Qarabag of Azerbaijan before also taking on Anderlecht and Monaco in Group ‘J’.

Two historic European clubs meet each other in Group ‘A’ as Ajax host Scottish champions Celtic, with Fenerbahce — boosted by the close-season arrivals of Robin van Persie and Nani — welcoming Molde to Istanbul.

Ajax were humbled in the Champions League qualifiers by Rapid Vienna but the Austrians failed in the subsequent playoffs so join them with Thursday night European appointments. Group ‘E’ hopefuls Rapid host Villarreal.

With four-times winners Sevilla making up an unprecedented five-strong Spanish contingent in the Champions League, La Liga is a little under represented in the Europa League although Athletic Bilbao welcome Bundesliga surprises Augsburg in Group ‘L’.

There will be plenty more big sides in action on Thursday, with Olympique Marseille and Athletic Bilbao expected to prevail in their respective openers against Groningen and APOEL.

Elsewhere, Dinamo Minsk, Braga, Lokomotiv Moscow, Besiktas, Sparta Prague and AZ begin on the road at Viktoria Plzen, Slovan Liberec, Sporting Lisbon, Skenderbeu Korce, Asteras and Partizan Belgrade respectively.

Published in Dawn, September 17th, 2015

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