The Europa League is, sadly, not a much-loved competition. The weird little step-sibling of the Champions League is often ignored, overlooked, or even ridiculed as unimportant, lacking meaning, or stupid and pointless. It's a sad thing to see it treated this way, because while it may lack the glamour and star power of the Champions League, it's still a competition that creates some tremendously entertaining football.
For fans eager to learn new things about the sport, the Europa League is a fantastic place to do just that. Even in the knockout rounds when the minnows have been seen out, it's still chock-full of teams that you don't necessarily hear about on a regular basis. While that can certainly make following it a little difficult if you don't know how good a particular club is, that mystery, that experience of learning and expanding your knowledge of the sport, can be incredibly rewarding.
Even without the knowledge aspect of it, though, the Europa League is just fun. It's something different. We're used to seeing Real Madrid or Barcelona face Bayern Munich or Chelsea, or other similarly super-powered matchups. Matchups like Liverpool against Besiktas, Wolfsburg against Sporting Lisbon, or PSV Eindhoven against Zenit St. Petersburg, though? Those we don't get to see very often. They're harder to predict and tend to be fairly chaotic affairs, and that always means a good time can be had watching them.
The Europa League is always a wide-open field -- that's part of its charm -- but when the knockout rounds start and we know who's dropping in to the competition from the Champions League, we usually get a decently clear picture of just who the favorites in the competition will be.
This year, two of the favorites are Italian clubs, AS Roma and SSC Napoli. Both crashed out of the Champions League -- Roma after failing to secure second place in their group on the last matchday and Napoli by getting utterly outclassed in the playoff round. Both have attacks that can run rampant over nearly any left in the Europa League, though, and have managers and players eager for a continental trophy, even if they can't win Champions League glory this year.
German side Wolfsburg have taken Germany by storm this season, standing impressively in second place in the Bundesliga and earning a shocking and impressive win against Bayern Munich along the way. They were equally impressive in their Europa League group campaign, and will be eager to prove their legitimacy as a powerful side in Europe by winning the tournament.
Ajax aren't quite the power they once were, but they've still got a side loaded with fascinating young talent. They, like Roma, dropped to the Europa League after failing to advance from their Champions League group, but that's more an artifact of getting drawn with Barcelona and Paris Saint-Germain than anything else. Many are overlooking their presence in this tournament, but make no mistake: they have the ability to go all the way.
Then we have the defending champions, Sevilla. This time last year, they were an afterthought, and they are again for many. The Spanish side have the ability to go the distance again despite the lack of attention headed their way, and need to be taken seriously. They've got a tough matchup this round against Borussia Mönchengladbach, but if they can make it past the German side, they've got a strong chance at making a lot of noise over the coming months.
Other teams to watch
Of course, it's not always the favorites that win the Europa League. With such a big field and such a varied crop of teams, anything can happen, and it often does. Just look at Sevilla -- no one gave them a chance of winning the Europa League last season. Borussia Mönchengladbach will be aiming for a similar surprising result, and they have the talent to pull it off. They'll need to knock off Sevilla to do it, but they have every chance of pulling it off.
They won't be alone, though, in their quest to surprise Europe. A pair of English sides are working hard to overcome disappointing starts to the season, and both Liverpool and Tottenham Hotspur could placate frustrated fanbases by winning the Europa League title. We know Spurs will take the tournament seriously based on their recent history in the Europa League, but whether Liverpool will is a bit more mysterious. They haven't in the past, but with Steven Gerrard leaving the club at the end of this season, earning another piece of European silverware with him in the squad might just be enough of a priority for them to make a big push.
PSV Eindhoven have -- somehow very quietly -- been dominating the Eredivisie in Holland, dropping only eight points all season and building a commanding 12-point lead over Ajax in the process. Yet, they've drawn very little acclaim for their achievements, despite the fact that PSV has the depth and talent to make a strong push in the Europa League as well. Hopefully by this time in May, the Dutch side will be given the acclaim they deserve. Keep an eye out for Memphis Depay, who will probably be heading to a huge club next summer.
The same could be said of Spanish side Villarreal, who have done very well since their return to La Liga 18 months ago, and looked very strong in their group stage campaign. They're an exciting side loaded with fun talent, and that's often a winning combination in the Europa League. Of course, they could choose to consolidate their efforts on the league, as they're currently just six points back of the Champions League places in La Liga -- if they do decide to focus elsewhere, Red Bull Salzburg are more than good enough an opponent to put a weakened side to the sword.
Round of 32 matchups to watch
Three ties in the first knockout round of the Europa League stand out as very watchable, perhaps none more so than Sevilla lining up against Borussia Mönchengladbach. The defending champions of the Europa League have their hands full with the resurgent German club, and watching the two under-appreciated sides slug it out should be tremendously entertaining.
The same can be said for Tottenham and Fiorentina, two clubs whose fans were hoping would be challenging for Champions League places this season. Things haven't quite gone according to plan, but that Champions League place can still be won by winning the Europa League. These sides match up extremely well with each other, and this should be a very fun tie.
Despite what looks like a marked talent advantage on paper, German side Wolfsburg should face quite a challenge from their opponents, Sporting Lisbon. The Portuguese side lacks the same star power that Wolfsburg has, but that doesn't mean that they're not very good, and in terms of tactics and individual matchups, this tie is much closer than it might appear at first glance. If Wolfsburg back off the accelerator at all, Sporting can and will make them pay for the mistake.
First Leg results
All matches on Thursday, Feb. 19
Young Boys 1-4 Everton
Torino 2-2 Athletic Bilbao
Wolfsburg 2-0 Sporting Lisbon
AaB 1-3 Club Bruges
Dnipro Dnipropetrovsk 2-0 Olympiakos
Trabzonspor 0-4 Napoli
AS Roma 1-1 Feyenoord
PSV Eindhoven 0-1 Zenit St. Petersburg
Sevilla 1-0 Borussia Mönchengladbach
Ajax 1-0 Legia Warsaw
Anderlecht 0-0 Dinamo Moscow
Guingamp 2-1 Dynamo Kyiv
Villarreal 2-1 Salzburg
Liverpool 1-0 Besiktas
Tottenham Hotspur 1-1 Fiorentina
Celtic 3-3 Inter Milan