Football Features

They can call him “Folarin Balogoal” – 12 things you might have missed from Europa League matchday six

By Harry Edwards

Published: 22:17, 10 December 2020

After six weeks of non-stop action, the 2020/21 Europa League group stage is over, and it ended with a bang.

There was still quite a lot to be settled going into the final matchday, with many teams fighting for their qualification to the knockout stages and others looking to end their campaign on a high.

But, naturally, with 23 games going on across the two time slots (Villarreal vs Qarabag was postponed due to the latter not having enough players) it was hard to keep track of everything going on. That’s where we’ve got you covered.

Read on for 12 things you might have missed from the final day of the 2020/21 Europa League group stage.

1. Arsenal go perfect

The less said about Arsenal’s start to the 2020/21 Premier League season the better, with the Gunners down in 15th and closer in points to the bottom three than they are the top four. But in the Europa League they have been excellent. Perfect, even.

Arsenal had already secured top spot in Group B going into the final matchday but their 4-2 win over Dundalk in one of Thursday’s early kick-offs saw the Gunners complete their perfect group stage: six wins from six games. Considering they named a heavily-rotated XI which included starts for Joseph Willock, Eddie Nketiah, Runar Alex Runarsson and Emile Smith Rowe, it’s a fine achievement that Arsenal still managed to win. After all, the Champions League saw both Chelsea and Liverpool draw their final group games with top spot already secured.

But perhaps even more remarkable is the fact that, of the 80 teams in both the Champions League and Europa League group stages this season, only Arsenal finished the campaign perfect.

2. They can call him “Folarin Balogoal”

One of Arsenal’s problems in the Premier League this season has been the lack of goals from their attackers, but in the Europa League the younger stars have often shone. And on Thursday night it was Folarin Balogun’s go.

The 19-year-old has played in four of Arsenal’s Europa League games this season, albeit having brief cameos in each one. However, in his 61 minutes on the pitch across those four matches, Balogun has scored twice and recorded one assist. Against Dundalk on Thursday night, he grabbed himself one of each in just 28 minutes.

Coming on to replace Nketiah, Balogun first set up Willock with a neat pass inside the area having held the ball up well under pressure from the goalkeeper. Then, just over 10 minutes later he got a goal for himself, racing onto Nicolas Pepe’s pass and beating the goalkeeper well. He’s now averaged a goal involvement every 20 minutes, the best record among Arsenal’s attackers across all competitions.

Insert Thomas Muller “We call him Lewangoalski” meme here.

3. The best Europa League group stage match ever

Young Boys’ home game against Cluj in one of Thursday’s early kick-offs was a crucial one in deciding who qualified alongside Roma in Group A.

The hosts had the advantage, two points clear of Cluj knowing all they had to do was avoid defeat to qualify for the last-32. For Cluj a win would have seen them leapfrog the Swiss side and, after 84 minutes, it looked like they’d be doing just that as Gabriel Debeljuh gave them the lead (though he appeared to be slightly offside).

And then the Europa League happened.

In the first minute of injury time, Cluj were reduced to 10 men when goalkeeper Cristian Balgradean was adjudged to have fouled CΓ©dric Zesiger inside the area when attempting to punch a cross clear, though there was very little (if any) contact. Balgradean was sent off for the incident and his replacement, Grzegorz Sandomierski was unable to stop Jean-Pierre Nsame scoring from the spot.

Two minutes later Nsame was sent off for a foul, another harsh decision, and Cluj may have felt they still had a chance of securing qualification. But then Gianluca Gaudino scored just a minute later to secure Young Boys’ spot in the last-32, and there was still time for a second Cluj red card, to Damjan Djokovic.

Who says the Europa League isn’t great?

4. Rangers stay unbeaten

Celtic have dominated Scottish football for quite some time now and for a while it looked like there would be no replacing them at the top. But then 2020/21 Rangers came along.

Steven Gerrard’s side have been marvellous across all competitions, leading the Scottish Premiership and flying the flag for the nation in the Europa League while Celtic falter on both fronts.

Their 2-0 win over Lech Poznan on Thursday was Rangers’ 24th in total since their campaign started back in August, and remarkably they have drawn the remaining four, still unbeaten after 28 matches.

It helped them secure top spot in Group D ahead of Benfica, an achievement that cannot be overlooked, and should help them in the last-32 draw. Is there any stopping Rangers this season?

5. Real Sociedad’s drawing run continues

Real Sociedad have had a great start to 2020/21 and are unbeaten in their past nine since losing to Napoli on matchday two of the Europa League. But their unbeaten run isn’t as impressive as it sounds right now.

La Real have now drawn five consecutive games across all competitions, adding a 1-1 stalemate with Napoli to the list thanks to Willian Jose’s injury time goal. It started with a goalless draw against AZ in the Europa League, and continued against Villarreal (1-1), HNK Rijeka (2-2), Alaves (0-0) and Napoli. A gambling person may want to put some money on their match against Eibar this weekend finishing 2-2 given the pattern.

That run has seen them lose top spot in La Liga having previously looked comfortable and finish second in their Europa League group, again losing first place when they had been in control. It’s not damaging just yet, but Real Sociedad will want to get back to winning ways soon.

6. Piotr Zielinksi crowns the newly-named Stadio Diego Armando Maradona

Real Sociedad’s game against Napoli was not just important for the final standings of Group F but it was also a historic and emotional night. It was the first game Napoli have played at home since they renamed their stadium the Stadio Diego Armando Maradona in memory of the footballing icon’s death last month.

Although they could not cap it with a win, they were able to get their first goal at the renamed ground, with that honour going to Piotr Zielinski. And it was a goal Maradona would have been proud of.

Sociedad failed to deal with a Napoli corner, and the ball dropped to Zielinski on the edge of the area. The Polish midfielder took a touch with his chest, allowed the ball to bounce before rifling the ball into the top-left corner, leaving the goalkeeper rooted to the spot.

7. Jens Petter Hauge strikes again

Jens Petter Hauge was the star of the show as AC Milan came from behind to beat Celtic last season, and once again he was the one running things to help the Rossoneri secure top spot in Group H.

It wasn’t just that he scored the only goal of the game, beating a defender before neatly curling the ball into the bottom right corner, through another defender’s legs. But he gave Tomas Wiesner and Martin Vitik a night they will be glad is over with his dribbling and ball control. His influence did wane slightly in the second half, but he was always there, waiting to strike when Sparta Prague gave him the chance.

8. Cengiz Under takes his first Foxes goal well

With so many goals going in around Europe, it can be hard to keep track of all of them, but Cengiz Under certainly made his one to watch with the potential strike of the night.

Just 12 minutes into Leicester’s game with AEK Athens, Youri Tielemans sent a cross into the box that defender Stratos Svarnas failed to deal with, slicing it into the direction of Under.

Always keeping his eye on the ball, Under unleashed a first-time volley with power into the corner of the net. Goalkeeper Panagiotis Tsintotas was rooted to the spot but even if he had got in its way, he would have likely joined the ball in the back of the net, such was the ferocity which with it was struck.

9. Carlos Vinicius makes the Europa League his

Carlos Vinicius was signed by Tottenham to give Harry Kane a rest, particularly in competitions such as the League Cup and Europa League. And he’s done his job well in the latter.

The Brazilian has played in four of Tottenham’s five Europa League group stage games so far and he has been directly involved in six goals, scoring three and recording three assists. Against Royal Antwerp on Thursday he opened the scoring, setting Tottenham up for the important win, having also netted twice in last week’s 3-3 draw with LASK.

10. Another assist for Kane

Although Jose Mourinho had no reason to play Harry Kane with Tottenham 1-0 up and topping the group, he still brought the English striker on, perhaps to strike fear into the hearts of Antwerp. So, of course, Kane had to get his customary assist.

Setting up Giovani Lo Celso’s goal, Kane recorded his 12th assist of the season so far in both the Europa League and Premier League. He’s already beaten the tally he reached in the past three seasons of the Premier League and Champions League combined.

Kevin De Bruyne, he’s coming for you.

11. Celtic end on a win

Times have been tough on Celtic in recent weeks, as they appear to have already surrendered their Premiership crown to bitter rivals Rangers, were knocked out of the League Cup and bowed out of the Europa League with a whimper.

But at least, on Thursday night, they ended the campaign with a win, their first of the group. It wasn’t an easy one either. Twice they gave up a lead against Lille, but David Turnbull’s strike with 15 minutes left was enough to secure all three points. It didn’t mean anything, and they still finished bottom, but it could be a small positive for them to build on.

12. Six out of seven for the Premier League

Tottenham’s 2-0 win over Royal Antwerp helped them win their group, ahead of the Belgian side, and completed a pretty impressive record for Premier League sides in Europe this season.

Mourinho’s men joined Chelsea, Liverpool, Manchester City, Arsenal and Leicester in winning their groups in the Champions League and Europa League. Only Manchester United failed to win their group, finishing third and dropping into the Europa League.