The Europa League makes its long-awaited return on Wednesday with four matches taking place on Wednesday before another four games on Thursday which will see the quarter-finalists at last decided. With 15 matches set to be played in the space of 16 days, there is an unbelievably quick turnaround between each round before the final on Friday, August 21st. With so much football to be played in August, who are the favourites to win, who have the best outside chance, and who are we backing? Check our Europa League predictions below.
Across their history, Manchester United have become a club synonymous with success, but recent years have really seen that air of invincibility wane. Finishes well away from the top of the Premier League and sometimes even outside of the top four has seen faith in the side falter. Previously, United would have been touted as likely winners of the Champions League if they were to make it out of their group, but they will have to remain contented with being the current favourites to win Europe’s secondary cup competition this season instead.
A near miss following elimination in the FA Cup saw Ole Gunnar Solskjaer miss a big chance to ensure they would end the season with a trophy, which means the pressure is well and truly on. Big names like Paul Pogba and David de Gea are, in their prime, too big for the Europa League, but neither have shone of late or, indeed, this season, meaning United probably won’t be relying on the two. Instead, young stars like Mason Greenwood and Marcus Rashford will likely play a big part in their campaign.
Of course, the big name for United and the Europa League right now is Bruno Fernandes. The Portuguese midfielder has scored six goals and assisted four times for Sporting Lisbon and Manchester United in Europe and he will once again be the real danger man. The United midfielder has displayed his wizard-like skills with the ball at his feet while he has a real nose for goal too with thunderous strikes and neat finishes a constant during his short stint with United. If all of the side’s cogs turn in unison, they should have far too much talent and the ability for any of the sides left in the competition.
While this is not the competition that Inter Milan want to be battling in, they are at last looking like a side that could potentially win trophies again. A superb showing in Serie A saw the side finish just a single point short of ending Juventus’ reign at the top of the league with a superb three wins in their final three games seeing the side impress yet again. While their trajectory in the table has only been upwards, they are also impressing on the pitch, scoring 81 goals to Juventus’ 76, while they conceded 36 goals, whereas Juventus conceded 43 times. Central to this superb effort is the goal-scoring output of Romelu Lukaku. The much-maligned striker struggled in the Premier League for Manchester United but his switch to Italy has born fruit, with 23 goals for Inter seeing only Ciro Immobile (36 goals) and Cristiano Ronaldo (31) scoring more in the league.
The mastermind of Lukaku’s move and the return to prominence for Inter is entirely down to manager Antonio Conte. The former-Chelsea boss has helped return that powerful defensive setup while the likes of Alexis Sanchez (eight assists), Cristiano Biraghi (six assists) and Antonio Candreva (eight assists) have played their part and helped to setup Lukaku up-front, and he has finished with aplomb.
The worry for Conte will be that his side were unable to clinch the Serie A title and having not won a major European honour since 2010, this group of players will really feel the pressure on them. The question is, can they deal with that pressure?
The Premier League outfit have really impressed in their European campaign and they go into the second-leg of their Europa League Last-16 game with Olympiakos at Molineux with a 1-1 aggregate scoreline. Diogo Jota has shone for Wolves in Europe with six goals and he has really impressed by netting a goal every 55 minutes, while Raul Jimenez has chipped in with three goals and three assists in that time. Unlike teams like United and Inter, Wolves will not feel the pressure of their fans in the same way as trophies were not a mainstay of their history that was so quickly torn away to make way for some pretty barren years.
What will make or break Wolves’ run will likely be the calibre of their next opponents, with a date with United or Inter one they would really struggle in. However, with only one-legged fixtures to come in the Europa League, anything can happen, especially in 90 minutes.
While the likes of United, Wolves and Roma may tickle the fancy of many bettors, for us, Inter Milan are the best choice out there. Three wins in their last three took them to within a point of a historic Serie A title while Antonio Conte knows how to win trophies and set up his team perfectly for whatever task lies ahead. United’s last game was a shaky albeit important win over Leicester which followed a poor 1-1 draw with West Ham and a comprehensive 3-1 defeat to Chelsea in the FA Cup semi-finals. If the United that roared back into action after the suspension of football are the team that play in the Europa League, then they are the team to back. Whether that will be the side that we watch in the coming weeks is anyone’s guess though.