The Champions League returned with a bang this week but there will be no let-up in the continental furore as we welcome back the Europa League on Thursday.
It’s been over two months since the balls were drawn for the round-of-32, but that long wait is nearly over as clubs from Cyprus to the Premier League finalise preparations and undergo some last-minute drills ahead of a blockbuster night of first-leg encounters.
There are some interesting matchups in this first wave of knockout ties, owing partly to the Champions League dropouts, but things will really start to heat up when we enter the latter stages of this prestigious tournament.
In the coming weeks, there are plenty of Hollywood ties to enjoy, including Olympiakos versus Arsenal and Club Brugge against Manchester United, while Wolves lock horns with Espanyol and Celtic pit their wits against reigning Danish champions FC Copenhagen.
This could lead to a number of Europe’s elite exiting the competition earlier than expected, which could have a big effect on their Football Index* values.
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The Europa League offers the perfect platform for some of the continent’s lesser-known players to take centre stage and make a name for themselves against the established order. As Craig Rennie, of Football Index Elite, explains, this can be hugely beneficial to traders.
“The Europa League doesn’t quite have the same prestige attached to it as the Champions League but it is still an opportunity for day traders to spot a bit of value in the market,” Craig said.
“It is a rare opportunity when you can get performance dividends for players from non-performance buzz leagues and many traders will take advantage of some low prices.
“Players from the Netherlands, Portugal, Austria and Scotland have the opportunity to shine on the big stage.”
That considered, it’s not just about seeking out hidden gems and banking on under-the-radar players. Indeed, there are a number of top players who will take the competition by storm during these knockout rounds, but who in particular should you have your eye on? And who could be set for a hike in their price?
Ex-Prem stars to shine under Conte and Inter?
It’s been a revolutionary season for one of Italy’s sleeping giants, Inter Milan, who have reinvented themselves under Antonio Conte and could finally bring an end to Juventus’ stranglehold on Serie A.
Part of that success has been hinged on the influx of numerous Premier League imports, including ex-Manchester United marksman Romelu Lukaku, who has 17 Serie A goals to his name already this term.
The likes of Alexis Sanchez, Ashley Young and Victor Moses have also donned the Nerazzurri colours this campaign, but there is one player, in particular, who could leave a significant imprint on this tournament: Christian Eriksen.
Together with Lukaku, the duo pack huge pedigree and boast vast experience in Europe, which will prove crucial to Conte when Inter collide with Ludogorets. One is a great scorer of goals, while the other is a great provider; together, they can link forces to spearhead a devastating Inter attack.
With serial-winner Conte at the helm and orchestrating the entire operation, Inter are surely one of the favourites to take home the top prize. Not to mention the Italian tactician has previous in this particular competition, winning the coveted silverware in 1993 with Juventus as a player.
“Some of the big guns have now dropped down from the Champions League and Ajax and Inter Milan will be amongst the favourites to lift the trophy this year,” Craig said.
“The resurgence of Lukaku (£2.31) since arriving in Italy has been evident for all to see and the big Belgian has been in excellent form since leaving Manchester.
“With two ties against Ludogorets to look forward to, he could easily see a nice price hike if he gets on the scoresheet a few times. He could also be a wise hold for the summer with his domestic form and also leading the line for a very strong Belgian side in the Euros.
“Christian Eriksen is another who could find his feet since departing Tottenham. The Dane saw an audacious free-kick crash off the bar in his debut for Inter and his dead-ball prowess and eye for a goal could see him regain his old form. He could be a shrewd investment at £2.31.”
Are Celtic a dark horse thanks to one prolific forward?
It’s been business as usual for Celtic since the departure of Brendan Rodgers, with Neil Lennon marking his second stint in charge of the Bhoys with three pieces of domestic silverware already — and it hasn’t even been a year since he returned.
The Glaswegian outfit currently sit atop the Scottish Premiership and made light work of their Europa League group campaign. There were wins over CFR Cluj and Rennes, and an impressive double over Lazio as Celtic topped Group E.
Celtic now face FC Copenhagen but can they make it past the round-of-32 for the first time since 2004? Craig certainly thinks so, believing a certain Odsonne Edouard will be a key player among Europe’s elite during these next few weeks.
“I would fancy Celtic to advance to the next round against FC Copenhagen and there aren’t many better in-form strikers at the moment than Odsonne Edouard (£2.47),” he said.
“He has already caught the eye of a host of Premier League clubs and could play his way into a French call up in the near future.”
Sevilla to end three-year hiatus?
Much like Real Madrid in the Champions League, La Liga counterparts Sevilla are a dominant force when it comes to the Europa League, winning three consecutive titles between 2014 and 2016.
Since then, though the Spanish club have faltered away from domestic dealings, but could this be the year they re-emerge as a massive player on the Europa League table?
Ex-Real boss Julen Lopetegui is at the wheel, as too is transfer guru Monchi, who left for Roma in 2017, only to return to Seville in March 2019.
The Andalusians face a double-header against CFR Cluj, and Craig has outlined exactly why he feels the club are a strong favourite coming into these knockout rounds, picking out two players he believes could flourish.
He said: “Sevilla are serial winners of this tournament and two players who catch my eye for them are Suso (£1.80) and Lucas Ocampos (£1.21) at slightly cheaper prices.
“Their domestic form has been inconsistent this season, but they know how to win this tournament and could go far if these players hit top form along with former performance buzz magnet, Ever Banega (£0.81).”
Chelsea newcomer to leave a parting gift for Ajax?
Chelsea have recently confirmed the signing of Hakim Ziyech from Ajax for £36.7m, but the Moroccan talisman will not join Frank Lampard’s side until the summer, so he has a chance to bow out in style.
And what better way to do so than by bringing European success back to Amsterdam? Erik ten Hag’s side came agonisingly close to reaching the Champions League final last season but saw their hearts broken by a last-gasp Lucas Moura winner in the penultimate stage.
Ajax’s woes were compounded by the mass exodus that unfolded over the summer, which saw Frenkie de Jong and Matthijs de Ligt depart for more illustrious pastures. They were then demoted to this competition after just missing out on progression to the Champions League knockout rounds, and Ziyech could play a big part in how they fare…