The UEFA Europa League has now reached its final stage of the group phase and with 6 spots still up for the offering, there is bound to be immense competition amongst the contenders who can make it to the final cut.
Group A is more of a closed chapter, with both Manchester City and KKS Lech Poznań crossing the border to make it to the knockout stage. Matchday 6 will only possibly shuffle the first and second places between these two teams.
Group B serves a more interesting scenario. Defending champions Atletico de Madrid are now in danger of an early exit this season, and Qique Sanchez Flores is going to have to give his boys a positive impetus to secure victory. Sadly for Ateltico though, a win might still not be good enough if Greek side Aris Thessaloniki FC get the better of Rosenborg BK. The Norwegian outfit is placed fourth in the group and given that Aris only need to get the same result as Atletico, they will look to get maximum points against Rosenborg in order to book their birth in the final 32 of the Europa league. One advantage that Aris holds over Atletico is that they will be playing at home, while Atletico travel to the BayArena to face Bayer Leverkusen, who has already made it through to the next round of the competition. After a successful World Cup campaign with Uruguay, Diego Forlan will now have to shift gears to help his club progress in Europe in order to defend its title.
Sporting Clube de Portugal is sitting comfortably in the first spot with twelve points, as they go into matchday 6 facing lowly PFC Levski Sofia. But the real feast in Group C comes from the game between LOSC Lille Métropole and KAA Gent. Having won against Levski Sofia 1 – 0 on matchday 5, the Belgian club Gent escalated from the fifth spot to second, and now with a two point advantage over Lille, they only need a draw to qualify. For the side from Northern France, it is a must-win game and coach Rudi Garcia will be relying on the likes of Eden Hazard and Gervinho to pull off an inspiring victory for the Ligue 1 outfit. The duo has been under the radar of a host of top clubs across the continent, and a strong performance by them will prove just why they are coveted by Europe’s finest.
Villareal, group D leaders, might have just done enough to hold on to a spot in the final 32, but looking down at the second and the third spot there is no guarantee on who is the other team joining the yellow submarines in climbing the ladder. PAOK FC has managed to stabilize under caretaker manager Ioakim Havos since mid-October and is now going steady in the Greek Super League too. Along with the return of their local lad Dimitris Salpingidis from Panathanaikos, the side will feel much more confident of progressing to face the stronger teams of Europe. They will be up against NK Dinamo Zagreb. The Croatian club needs a win to finish above PAOK, and if Villareal lose against Club Brugge on Wednesday, then there is also a chance of Dinamo finishing off as group leaders. Former AC Milan defender and Dinamo product Dario Simic will be rooting from the stands for this one after announcing his retirement early this season.
Over at Group E, FC Dynamo Kyiv and Belarusian side FC Bate Borisov have done their homework to steer clear of AZ Alkmaar and FC Sheriff and have cruised into the next round. However, Dynamo’s loss against FC Sheriff and a win for Bate Borisov over dutch side AZ Alkmaar will bring Dynamo down to second place at the end of Matchday 6. This is the first time Borisov have qualified for the knockout phase in the Europa League, and a successful campaign will surely imbibe the determination to finish off as group leaders.
Matchday 6 will leave no effect on Group F, as PFC CSKA Moskva and AC Sprata Praha have jettisoned the presence of US Città di Palermo and FC Lausanne-Sport from the roster of 32 teams in the next round. The top two teams face each other on Wednesday.
Group G sees Zenit St Petersburg ace the section, while the second spot is still open to AEK Athens and RSC Anderlecht. Athens manager Manuel Jimenez has a difficult task in catapulting his side to the next round having seen that Russian Premier League champions had a perfect record in this competition so far. A home advantage can give a boost but the end result must be a victory. Belgian club Anderlecht are right now three points behind the Greeks, but a win against HNK Hajduk Split will see them accompany Zenit into the next round due to their head-to-head record against Anderlecht. This will happen provided AEK lose against Zenit St Petersburg when they host them this Thursday.
Groups H, I, L announced their winners a fortnight ago on matchday 5. Stuttgart and BSC Young Boys have finished first and second respectively from Group H, whereas PSV Eindhoven and Ukrainian outfit FC Metalist Kharkav occupy and first and second from their group. However, Kharkiv can finish above PSV on Matchday 6 if they do manage to beat the Dutch side by a margin of three goals atleast, at the Philips stadium. At group L, FC Porto have topped the group and will be advancing with Turkish side Besiktas in second place.
French club Paris-Saint Germain booked their spot in the final 32 during matchday 5 following a thrilling victory over Sevilla at home. This leaves a tussle between German club Borrusia Dortmund and Sevilla for the second spot in Group J. Both the teams are on the same goal difference, with Sevilla hosting the Germans on Wednesday; a win for either team ensures its progress. Sevilla have a good record at home against German clubs- not having lost even one of their six games against a German club – and coach Gregorio Manzano will look to keep that record intact.
And finally at Group K, it is going to be long trip to Naples for Romanian club FC Steaua Bucureşti. Napoli lie two points shy of the Bucureşti, and will be looking to give it their best shot to grab a home win that will catapult them to the second place. Looking at FC Steaua Bucureşti’s dismal away record in European competitions (they are yet to win in nine UEFA Cup and UEFA Europa League group stage away games), Napoli will look to add to their woes.
The climax of the group stage is sure to spring up some surprises in this season’s Europa League and it is bound to be a Merry Christmas for the remaining 6 who make it through.