Football Features

Breathing space for Celtic, Rangers in the balance: Five things learned from Europa League play-offs

By Mohamed Moallim

Published: 22:00, 22 August 2019

It is not long before this season’s Europa League truly gets underway.

The likes of five-time champions Sevilla, Arsenal and Manchester United have already booked their place alongside 17 other teams.

So that means 31 spots are up for grabs, and they will be decided next Thursday when the play-off round concludes. Before then 21 first-leg matches were played on Thursday evening, featuring both members of the Old Firm, upstarts Wolverhampton Wanderers, previous winner PSV Eindhoven and last season’s surprise package Eintracht Frankfurt.

As the dust settles on another action-packed night of European football, here are five things we learned from five selected games.

1. Fer back on song

Feyenoord last played European football proper in 2017, when they participated in the Champions League group phase after ending an 18-year title drought. Newly-appointed boss Jaap Stam is looking to ensure they’re competing on three fronts at least until the winter break.

They began their Europa League qualification campaign with a 5-1 aggregate win over Georgian outfit Dinamo Tbilisi, which included a stunning 4-0 rout at home. Tonight’s opponents, Israeli side Hapoel Beer Sheva, were expected to be a tough proposition but the Rotterdammers comfortably passed their first test.

Among the goals in their 3-0 victory at De Kuip was former golden child Leroy Fer, who returned in the summer as a free agent. The midfielder, last seen playing for Swansea City, bundled home his first goal back in a red-and-white jersey 11 minutes into the second half following a Steven Berghuis corner before following it up with another late on – a strike from just inside the penalty area.

Berghuis, formerly of Watford (blink and you would have missed it), saw his strike cannon off the post but fall kindly for Sam Larrsson to give the hosts a 33rd-minute lead. Feyenoord’s only wins under Stam this season – early days of course – have come in Europe and if they can keep keep their wits about them next week then the first objective of his reign will have been met.

2. Tie hangs in the balance

In the grand scheme of things, playing out a goalless draw away from home in the first leg of a knockout tie isn’t a terrible result. However that dreaded away-goal rule looms large in the upcoming contest. Rangers, in an evenly matched contest with Polish side Legia Warsaw, can be content with their evening’s work, but don’t think for a second they have one foot in the group stages.

Steven Gerrard, whose managerial career looks promising so far, remains unbeaten in Europa League qualifying (nine wins and six draws) and he more than most knows the pitfalls of this scenario. His side just about out-gunned their hosts (four shots on goal to three), but the Glaswegian outfit were unable to get one past Radoslaw Majecki, which makes next week’s showdown at Ibrox all that more intriguing.

3. Semi-finalist on the ropes

Everywhere they go, Eintracht Frankfurt’s passionate supporters, who give new meaning to ‘the 12th man’, make their voices heard loud and clear. They will need to be at their most vocal next Thursday as Adi Hutter’s team needs them more than ever.

Strasbourg, although finishing mid-table in last season’s Ligue 1, were always going to be a tricky customer and they proved very much so. The defining moment of this game came late in the first half when Malian midfielder Kevin Zohi scrambled home a corner.

An upset was on the cards and despite the Bundesliga side huffing and puffing it duly came to pass. It sets up next week’s game at the Waldstadion very nicely. We’ve seen teams go there and come unstuck. Eintracht are unbeaten in their last 15 homes Europa League games winning 11 while averaging 2.1 goals per game.

So, all eyes on Le Racing in a week’s time, can Thierry Laurey’s men buck a trend and not be Frankfurt’s latest victim. It’s worth noting the four clubs who avoided defeat in that aforementioned period are Newcastle United (0-0), FC Porto (3-3), Inter Milan (0-0) and reigning Europa League champions Chelsea (1-1).

4. Breathing space for Lennon

The pressure of managing Celtic comes on two fronts. Their near domination of the Scottish game – this season they’re aiming for a ninth championship on the bounce – leaves no room for error in the league. It’s lifting the Scottish Premiership or bust.

This leads neatly to Europe, where reaching the Champions League group phase is typically paramount. And yet, for a second consecutive season, The Bhoys will not be dining at the top table in terms of Europe’s elite intracontinental competition.

Elimination at the hands of Romanian champions CFR Cluj led to calls for Neil Lennon’s resignation, but the powers that be have kept faith in the former club captain, who is potentially one disastrous game away from ensuring no more trips over to the continent’s mainland this season.

So far so good, though. James Forrest, as he’s being doing so often this season already, popped up when it mattered to score in a fifth successive outing before Odsonne Edouard put AIK out of their misery. A straightforward 2-0 victory is a positive start but next week in Sweden is the real evaluation.

5. Hungry like The Wanderers

Two iconic names of early-to-mid 20th century football came face-to-face in northern Italy this evening in what happened to be the English side’s first game on Italian soil since a Uefa Cup quarter-final meeting with The Bull’s city rivals, Juventus, in March 1972, which ended 1-1.

Nuno Espírito Santo’s current incarnation were naturally in a bullish mode (pardon the pun) given what they’ve achieved in the last year. Their opponents are no mugs, but defender Gleison Bremer must have felt like one when he flicked on a Joao Moutinho free-kick into his own net on the stroke of half-time.

It’s been 39 years since Wolves played European football (not including qualifiers) and that wait could soon be over. Diogo Jota, after some good Adama Traore wing play, scored his third of this qualifying stage to double their lead, but Torino immediately struck back through wing-back Lorenzo De Silvestri, keeping all concerned on a knife edge.

No one, however, told this to ice-cold finisher Raul Jimenez, whose effort 18 minutes from the end broke Torino’s resolve.

An 89th-minute Andrea Belotti ensures the second leg at Molineux is a must-watch. A fantastic result away from home, but Wolves will not be resting on their laurels, they’ve waited so long for this moment.