The Europa League has begun. Liverpool, Tottenham Hotspur and Newcastle fly the flag for English clubs in the competition, but face stiff opposition for cup glory. Who has what it takes to take the title?
Sometimes dubbed as second-best to the Champions League, the Europa League is far from it – none more so than for the team’s involved. Liverpool and Spurs will no doubt set the Europa League trophy as a priority this season, and will hope this season will see a strong cup run for both sides. Newcastle, qualifying for the competition after defeating Greek side Atromitos in an edgy 2-1 two-legged affair, will also be hoping their re-introduction to the Europa League is a successful one.
Whilst struggling in the Premier League, Liverpool will hope their fortunes turn in the European competition, and will feel this year could be theirs. They have been handed a winnable group, and may feel their biggest contenders will be money-rich Russian side FC Anzhi Makhachkala. Italian side Udinese may also play a part in blocking Liverpool’s route to the knockout stages, and they will be joined by BSC Young Boys, who narrowly missed out on Champions League football in 2010 following their 6-3 aggregate defeat to Tottenham.
The North Londoners also face a tough challenge in their group, beginning their campaign against a Lazio side with sights firmly set on qualification. Greek side Panathinaikos have every capability of ensuring a cup upset, whilst Maribor may well prop up the group table.
Like Liverpool and Tottenham, Newcastle are also group favourites, and if they can see off competition from Bordeaux, Club Brugge and Maritimo, can progress to the knockout stages with relative ease.
The toughest test for the English clubs will come in the knockout stages. All three will be hoping for an ‘easy’ draw, and with title holders Atletico Madrid, experienced European side Inter Milan and finalists Athletic Bilbao in the draw, they must ensure they put in strong performances in their quest for the title.
Liverpool were the most recent side to play a competitive match against current holders Atletico Madrid, narrowly missing out on a place in the Europa League final after a 2-2 AET defeat in their 2010 semi-final. The last time Tottenham played them was in 1963, where they ran out 5-1 winners in the Cup Winners’ Cup, whilst Newcastle have yet to play them.
Liverpool had more success when last meeting fellow champion contenders Inter Milan, beating them 3-0 on aggregate during their Champions League last-16 tie in 2008. They were later knocked out in the semi-final stage by fellow Premier League side Chelsea, but with Chelsea in the Champions League, a repeat of this tie is unlikely.
Tottenham will also feel confident they can beat Inter, after a 6-4 aggregate win in the first knockout stage of the 2010 Champions League. Winger Gareth Bale announced his presence in Europe then, and will be hoping for similar fortune if the two meet once again.
Bilbao will also prove difficult for the English sides, and if they can replicate the form that took them to last year’s final, will be a serious contender in disrupting any title plans for the Premier League managers.
Since the introduction of the UEFA Cup (now the Europa League), Liverpool share the record with Inter Milan and Juventus for the most cup wins, and if they can triumph in Bucharest, the location of this year’s final, they will become the most successful Europa League team ever. They last won the trophy in 2001, and will be looking for a repeat performance 12 years on.
Tottenham have won the trophy twice, though with their last success coming in 1984, will be savouring the prospect of ending a 29-year wait to reclaim the title. Being the first team to ever win the tournament, they will be hoping, as far as this year is concerned, to also be the latest.
Newcastle’s presence in the Europa League is fresh in comparison. Having never won the competition, the club have appeared in just eight Europa League ties before this year’s competition began, and will be hoping for a successful re-appearance in their European quest.
With key opposition coming from Spanish duo Atletico Madrid and Athletic Bilbao, as well as Italian club Inter Milan, can any of the English teams snatch the crown, and become the 2012/13 Europa League champions? In eight months time, we will find out.
How capable are Liverpool, Tottenham Hotspur and Newcastle United in winning the Europa League?