Earlier this month, Leicester City, Napoli and Villarreal reached the knockout stages of the 2020/21 UEFA Europa League, becoming three of thirty-two teams in with a chance of glory – and an alternative route directly into next season’s UEFA Champions League group stage.
The state of play
All of the three teams in question have the ability to win the competition, and they each command some degree of respect in their domestic leagues. That is certainly the case right now, even if they are not seen as title contenders in their own country – or even particularly likely to qualify for the Champions League via their domestic league.
Certainly, the latest live wagering odds available online show that these teams all face adverse odds in their respective domestic leagues, compared to the usual heavyweights. In turn, they will all view the Europa League as the best – or at least the most lucrative – shot at silverware they have this season.
As per the existing rules, winning a Europa League group guarantees home advantage in the second leg of the next knockout round. Last season, only half of the Round of 32 winners had been given such an advantage, but in most cases, winning a group also yields an easier calibre of opposition.
As shown below, nine of the twelve Europa League winners hail from one of Europe’s top five leagues – namely, the Premier League, Serie A, Ligue 1, Bundesliga and La Liga.
Meanwhile, the unseeded half (group stage runners up) features a much greater number of teams from leagues with a much poorer history of continental success in the 21st century. This, also, fuels current expectations of seeded teams dominating the Round of 32.
Rival merits amongst Super Eagles
Here, we analyse the form of each player highlighted, and the performances of their respective teams during the group stage.
Kelechi Iheanacho (Leicester)
Iheanacho has been largely overshadowed in Leicester colours, since his move from Manchester City in 2017. Much of that is down to Jamie Vardy’s scintillating form, with Vardy claiming the Premier League’s golden boot in 2019/20 at the age of 33. Injuries to Vardy have given Iheanacho the opportunity to step up, and it is an opportunity he has taken well, with Iheanacho bagging three goals (en route to clean-sheet wins) in the group stage.
Leicester were perfect at home in the group stage, winning all three games at the King Power Stadium with a clean sheet, and by an average margin of three goals. Though they took less than 30 minutes to open the scoring each time, it will be the ability to avoid conceding potentially valuable ‘away goals’ to visiting opponents that will prove most important from here.
Victor Osimhen (Napoli)
Due to a shoulder injury, Osimhen has been unable to build on his impressive Napoli debut, or an existing 100% winning return from two goalscoring games. He scored twice in European action last term, netting first-half goals in matches producing over 2.5 total goals – although both games were lost, as Lille finished dead last their Champions League group.
Though Napoli’s passage through to the Europa League knockout phase of 2020/21 was not safe until the end of matchday six, the team showed great character in recovering after an opening loss at home to Dutch club AZ. Three wins immediately followed, with a stern defence conceding just once. However, there were lapses in the final two games, with Napoli surrendering a half-time lead to draw 1-1 on both occasions.
Samuel Chukwueze (Villarreal)
One among the new breed of attacking wingers championed by La Liga’s trend for technically-minded football, Chukwueze chose matchday five to net his first Europa League goal, but it was the most valuable of all, beating Sivasspor and cementing Villarreal’s status as group winners. It was also a fourth goal among his previous six (across all competitions) to arrive beyond the 70th minute, further underlining his reputation as a man who can orchestrate a late twist.
While Villarreal’s return of four wins from five Europa League group games suggests that they can take on simultaneous European and domestic battles effectively, the calibre of opposition was relatively poor. Combined, Villarreal’s other three group stage opponents had an average UEFA coefficient of just 14.740. By contrast, Leicester’s opponents averaged a coefficient of 23.333, while Napoli’s.
Leicester showed their true ability in negotiating one of the tougher groups, but there are a lot of young players in the wider squad, making it hard to foresee them going much further than the quarter finals without a fully-fit Jamie Vardy. In Europe, winning trophies is a habit, and such is the calibre of competition this time around, the trophy winner is likely to contain players that have already won some form of European honours.
Villarreal are difficult to gauge, with the ‘Yellow Submarine’ making it to the quarter finals only two seasons ago, and the semi-finals as recently as 2016. Yet, despite having an in-form Chukwueze in the midst of making a name for himself in La Liga, it is hard to overlook their run of four straight European-competition home defeats against clubs from one of Europe’s top five domestic leagues. All of those defeats hastened their elimination from a European competition in the same tie.
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That leaves Napoli, and though the recent habit of conceding late is difficult to ignore, every player within that squad has true European pedigree. In turn, they have better experience than most in dealing with the challenges of two-legged knockout ties. Naturally, the eventual return of Osimhen is a factor that gives them an additional degree of tactical variation.
Napoli are by no means a one-man team. Yet, if MVP playmaker Dries Mertens – a born ‘number ten’ like late Napoli legend Maradona – can stay injury-free, the Neapolitans will be real contenders. In turn, Osimhen is the likeliest winner in this particular duel amongst his countrymen, although everything balances on a knife-edge.