With the first match day of the Champions League in the books, European soccer fans will now turn their attention to the Europa League, which kicks off on Thursday.
While the Europa League is often dismissed as a second-tier competition, the 48 teams in the field still include some of the top clubs from across the continent, including some traditional powerhouses who failed to reach the Champions League group stage this season.
The 48 teams have been divided into 12 groups of four teams each. Each group will play a double round-robin, after which the top two teams will advance to the knockout rounds. As an added twist, the eight third-place teams from the Champions League group stage will join them to complete the Round of 32.
English Sides Stand Out as Early Favorites
Because of those late additions to the field, it’s hard to know who the favorites will be when the knockout stages arrive. For the moment, however, much of the attention has been centered on two English sides that are looking to earn some European glory before hopefully working their way back into the Champions League field next season.
The most intriguing club could be Chelsea, which currently stands in first place in the English Premier League after winning their first five matches. Seeded into Group L, Chelsea looks to have a rather straightforward path to the knockout stage, playing opponents like Belarusian side BATE Borisov and MOL Vidi from Hungary.
Luiz Warns Teammates: Winning Won’t Be Easy
The Blues will kick off their campaign on Thursday by traveling to Greece to play PAOK Salonika, where William Hill has Chelsea as an 8/13 favorite to win their opening match. But Chelsea center back David Luiz has warned his teammates that the competition won’t be the cakewalk many supporters imagine.
“Many people don’t understand how hard it is to win this competition,” Luiz told the Evening Standard. “It’s not going to be easy because of how far we have to travel but also because of the quality of the teams. I know because I have played in the Europa League more than once…it is never easy to win a competition like this.”
Also starting play this week is Arsenal, who will play host to Ukrainian side Vorskla Poltava. Arsenal has a slightly tougher group than Chelsea, with Sporting Lisbon also lurking in their pool. That means the Gunners will want to get off to a fast start on Thursday, as they are overwhelming 1/16 favorites to walk away with the full three points.
At the moment, Chelsea and Arsenal stand as the favorites to win the Europa League title. William Hill has Chelsea at 5/1 odds, with Arsenal (7/1) not far behind. Other traditional powerhouses from major European leagues are also among the top contenders, such as Sevilla (12/1), AC Milan (16/1), and Lazio (16/1).
The winner of the Europa League not only earns a prestigious title, but also is guaranteed entry to the next Champions League should they not qualify by other means. Last year, Atletico Madrid defeated Marseille 3-0 in the final to win their third Europa League championship.