We’ve reached the business end of the Europa League group stage and this competition still looks wide open with plenty of dangerous sides showing they have the mettle to win it next summer.
With just two more gameweeks before the knockouts, the serious contenders have come centre stage – with Arsenal, Leicester already qualifying for the Last 32. The Gunners beat Molde 3-0 to seal their spot, while for the Foxes a 3-3 draw with Braga was enough. That eases the pressure on both sides and allows them to prioritise the Premier League for now.
Elsewhere, it’s all to play for. While Tottenham are one of the favourites to win the trophy, they still have a tight affair on their hands in Group J while Rangers are closing in on qualification after an impressive campaign.
Sportsmail takes you through the biggest things to look out for in the penultimate group stage round of the Europa League.
Arsenal have already qualified for the next round of the Europa League but there’s plenty still to resolve for a host of other teams in the penultimate gameweek
The fans are back!
We’ve only had to wait NINE MONTHS but we’re finally going to hear some cheers from the stands from the Emirates on Thursday night as Arsenal welcome Rapid Wien – even if it will only come from 2,000 supporters.
With the UK now out of lockdown and a new tier-system unveiled, it has been agreed by the Government that sporting events in Tier-2 areas – including London – can permit up to 2,000 fans, meaning this game will be one of the first to try it out.
After months of listening to engineered crowd sound and the shouts of managers on the sidelines, at last we’ll get an atmosphere of some sort – but it’s certainly going to be a new and changed world for fans, with social distancing in place. It’s not known if there will be restrictions on chanting but good luck trying to stop supporters singing their hearts out after such a huge absence from the stadium.
This game was supposed to be a dead rubber – it won’t be anymore for those lucky enough to have secured a ticket.
Arsenal fans will return to the Emirates for their game v Rapid Wien, with 2,000 allowed in
Squeaky bum time for Jose
Tottenham were expected to cruise through this tournament, but manager Jose Mourinho has two crucial games to come with Group J looking incredibly tight. His side are level with group leaders Royal Antwerp on nine points apiece and face a must-win trip to LASK on Thursday.
The Belgians are up against Ludogorets, who have lost every game so far. Expect them to come up short in that one too. LASK themselves are only three poinst behind Spurs and can draw level if they can pull off a win.
Should Mourinho’s side get the job done, they will square off against Antwerp for what would be a play-off to decide who finishes top. Tottenham have looked good for the most part in this competition – aside from a dreadful defeat against Antwerp last month – and the Portuguese boss is definitely taking it seriously.
He has given opportunities to his fringe stars to impress, with Gareth Bale and Carlos Vinicius both getting game time in Europe, but will he opt to play a few more of his big guns given the importance of three points?
Group J is a tight affair for Jose Mourinho’s Tottenham with qualification far from certain
Granada v PSV set to be a cracker
PSV can make things really interesting in Group E by beating current leaders Granada. The LaLiga side have been solid domestically – they are currently eighth in the Spanish top flight – but it has been the European stage where they’ve really come alive. They have 10 points from a possible 12 and have let in just two goals so far.
It provides a stern test for PSV, who will be led by top scorer Donyell Malen, who also leads the way for the team in Eredivisie, where they sit third.
Should PSV drop points here, they could be leapfrogged by PAOK if they can overcome Omonia – meaning the Eredivisie outfit will be putting everything on the line for victory.
Granada’s home game against PSV promises to be exciting as both sides vie for top spot
Napoli seek to honour Maradona
The death of Argentine legend Diego Maradona last week reverberated all over the globe, but his passing from a heart attack was a devastating blow to the community of Naples.
The former midfielder was a God-like figure in the city after inspiring Napoli to the Scudetto twice and the team will be looking to honour him for the second time in this competition. They already paid their tributes before their last game against Rijeka and marked it with a 2-0 win.
Now they’ll be hoping to use his memory and symbolism to the club as motivation for another big game away at AZ Alkmaar. Gennaro Gattuso’s men have a tough group with Real Sociedad breathing down their necks.
The LaLiga side are two points behind them and the two teams have a showdown in the final gameweek, but if they can secure a much-needed victory in Holland then a point could be enough against them to seal top spot.
Napoli hope to honour Diego Maradona’s memory by continuing their good form in Europe
Rangers in pole position
What a job Steven Gerrard has done at Ibrox and he’s made the Gers a force to be reckoned with in Europe for the first time since the days of Walter Smith.
His side are top of Group D – level with Benfica – and look certain to qualify, it’s just a matter of whether or not they top the group. His side welcome bottom side Standard Liege on Thursday and it’s vital that Rangers continue to keep up with Benfica, who are expected to turn over Lech Poznan.
They secured a 2-2 draw against Benfica, who are a feared and experienced outfit in Europe, and Gerrard will be confident of pipping them to first place should they see off the challenge of Liege. They came away with a 1-0 win in the reverse fixture in Belgium.
Steven Gerrard has taken Rangers to the verge of qualification after an impressive group stage
Celtic on the brink
On the other side of Glasgow, things aren’t going so swimmingly – and not just in Europe. It’s been a disaster season for Neil Lennon’s men. They’re losing ground in the title race against Rangers, confidence is low and they’re on their way out of Europe.
Pressure is growing on Lennon after a 2-0 loss to Ross County, leading to anger from fans who have called for his sacking. There were ugly scenes as supporters threw missiles at players’ cars outside Parkhead.
And there could be ugly scenes on Thursday night if Celtic lose to AC Milan, as they’ll be dumped out of the competition after a miserable campaign. Just one point so far and 13 conceded – the joint worst in the comepetition. Even if the Hoops can pull off a shock win at the San Siro, the mathematics aren’t favourable with a -8 goal difference to overcome.
Neil Lennon’s Celtic, on the other hand, are almost certain to be dumped out against AC Milan
Are Hoffenheim the dark horses?
Only two sides have maximum points from their first four games – one of them is Arsenal and one is Hoffenheim. We know the Gunners are one of the leading contenders in this competition but we’re learning a lot about the Bundesliga outfit.
They’ve scored 13 goals – the joint highest in the tournament – and conceded just one goal – the second fewest. They face their biggest test in the tournament so far as they lock horns with Red Star Belgrade, who sit just three points below them in Group L.
Hoffeinheim might only be 12th in the Bundesliga this season but the Europa League has proven to be their salvation. They beat Belgrade 2-0 last time out so will be confident of sealing their progress to the knockouts as group winners – and they can make a serious statement to the big dogs in the process.
Hoffeinheim are one of two teams to have maximum points and look like one of the dark horses
Time for Leicester to recharge
Brendan Rodgers’ Foxes have taken to the Europa League like a duck to water despite not having too much experience in the competition. Three wins out of four has secured a route to the knockouts and now they can relax… sort of.
While they’re not guaranteed to be group winners, it’s certainly a chance for Rodgers to rest some of his key players given their sketchy form in the Premier League, although he’ll still be keen to pick a side capable of beating bottom side Zorya.
He will be confident of three points in Ukraine, and should they do that then their healthy goal difference should see them through no matter what happens in the finale against AEK Athens.
Brendan Rodgers should look to rest his key players with a place in the knockouts secured
Can Dundalk break the Molde?
No one gave Irish minnows Dundalk a chance after making it through to the group stage, and it’s fair to say their string of defeats has come as no surprise.
Making it through this far has already netted the club millions that will be vital to them, but they will have their fingers crossed that they can bow out of the competition with a win – and have the chance to do just that against Molde.
They have nothing to lose for their journey to Norway, and incredibly they still have a chance of making the knockouts should they win and Arsenal beat Rapid Wien.
Dundalk are still waiting for their first win in the Europa League but are not down and out yet
Villarreal gunning for group stage gong
The Yellow Submarine hope to sink a Europa League record against Sivasspor on Thursday night and become the highest scoring group stage team in the history of the competition.
All they have to do to overtake Salzburg is score once against the Turkish side to pull it off, and avoiding defeat will seal their tenth qualification to the last 32 across UEFA Cup and Europa campaigns.
Unai Emery’s side are top of Group I with 10 points and have been boosted by goals from Paco Alcacer and Carlos Bacca. Along with Hoffenheim, they are the top scorers in the current season of the competition.
Villarreal have the chance to become the leading scorers in Europa League group stage history
Are Sociedad the Real deal?
Sitting pretty at the top of LaLiga in December, Sociedad have been one of the surprise packages across all of the major European leagues, and there hasn’t been too much to worry about in the Europa League either.
They’re battling with Napoli to finish top of Group F, but need to improve on their goalscoring output ahead of their game against lowly Rijeka. The Spanish side have scored just twice so far, but have still managed to rack up two wins and seven points on the board. That form is a far-cry from their domestic efforts, where they are the leading marksmen with 22 strikes.
Led by the likes of David Silva and Mikel Oyarzabal, Sociedad could well be a serious threat in this competition, but need to start translating their performances from LaLiga to the European stage.
Real Sociedad might be top of the league and scoring charts in LaLiga, but they have scored just twice in Europe