Europa League – Ones to watch

So Celtic face another season without Champions League football. Moments of European glory have been few and far between for the Hoops in recent years, culminating in last season’s somewhat embarrassing failure even to reach the group stages of the Europa League. Perhaps the Parkhead faithful became a little too acclimatised and expectant of the club to replicate the Euro glory nights against the likes of Manchester United, Juventus and Porto in the Champions League, and of course the terrific run that took Martin O’Neill’s side to Seville.

The dynamic of European football appears to be changing, particularly in the competition Celtic will contest this season, the Europa League. The current format allows for so called ‘smaller’ clubs to progress much further than they would in the old Uefa Cup. Clever management and an undoubted element of luck has seen the likes of Fulham get to a major European final by virtue of this competition.

Amongst the favorites for the cup this season will be Sevilla, AS Roma, Spurs, PSV and of course the 15 teams who’ll drop out from Champions League. However, to overlook the lesser known teams and sleeping giants of Europe who’ll participate in the cup could result in Celtic’s 2011/2012 European campaign being over quicker than you can say Artmedia Bratislava.

Here is a brief overview of just a handful of these so-called ‘wee teams’ – coming to a Europa League Cup Final near you?

FC Sochaux-Montbéliard (France)

Founded by Jean-Pierre Peugeot, a prominent member of the Peugeot family, this French side have certainly not been playing in second gear over the past few seasons. Playing at home in a modest 20,000 stadium, the side have seen something of a resurgence since being promoted from Ligue 2 in 2001. Sochaux went on to win the Coupe de la Ligue in 2004 and the Coupe de France in 2007. Like most teams in France, their youth system is formidable. A focus on rearing their own talent, or ultimately selling players on for highly inflated transfer fees appears to be at the core of the Sochaux philosophy. It would seem that the focus on youth is bearing fruit, given that the club have been successful in the Coupe Gambardella (France’s domestic under-19 trophy) winning the cup in 2007, and coming in as runner up last season.

Ligue 1 is arguably the most competitive league in Europe, and the standard of play across the board is excellent. The true extent of this is clear to see when, like last season, we see teams like AS Monaco and RC Lens being relegated. Sochaux finished a very respectable 5th in Ligue 1 last season, finishing just two points off PSG and a lucrative Champions League place.

This French side play a fast, free-flowing style of football that generally sees them score plenty of goals and look dangerous for long spells during matches. Defensive frailties are abundantly clear at times, but with their attacking mentality, they do make for enjoyable football and are well worth watching in this year’s competition. Young Nigerian forward Ideye Brown is their main threat. He’s pacey, powerful and has an eye for goal – finding the next 15 times in Ligue 1 last season. Malian winger Modibo Maiga too knows how to punish teams, possessing wicked pace and a decent final ball. He also managed 15 league goals last season and will no doubt give Sochaux’s Europa League opposition cause for concern.

US Città di Palermo (Italy)
Palermo icon 

Indeed Palermo don’t spring to mind as giants of the Italian game, but since returning to Serie A in 2004, they’ve comfortably held their own against the division’s heavyweights. They’ve earned a Europa League spot in each of the previous three seasons, although admittedly they’ve only qualified this year as a result of reaching the Coppa Italia final, and losing to Inter who’d already secured a Champions League spot. Last season they managed to finish 8th in the league, just two points behind Juventus.

With a core unit of rugged and disciplined Italian players, they don’t always make for the most entertaining of encounters, but rarely will you see them lose by more than the odd goal. Due to their traditional links with Sicily and the surrounding region, Palermo are command one of the largest away supports in Italy.

Although not especially technically gifted, Palermo would prove to be an intimidating away tie, and would most certainly make life difficult for the home side in their travels. The Italians are more than capable of frustrating the opposition for long spells of the game and have been known to punish big teams along the way.

By a considerable distance, their stand out player is one Javier Pastore, a 22-year old Argentine attacking midfield powerhouse. Capped for the national side on 8 occasions (despite having to jostle with the likes of Leo Messi for a place), he attacks with pace and can play the defense splitting pass. He’s attracted the attention of Manchester United, Chelsea,  Porto and AC Milan as a potential star of the future at the very highest level. Definitely one to watch.

HNK Hajduk Split (Croatia)
 

Once a giant of European football, Croatian outfit Hajduk Split fell into obscurity after a sustained spell punching against European heavyweights throughout the 70’s and 80’s. The club has been subject to as much turmoil as their native country over the past few decades. Originally a ‘working man’s club’ devised by a group of students in Prague, the club has changed stadium several times, and been adversely affected and lucidly change identity in some ways during the days of ‘Yugoslavia’.

During their glory days, they reached the European Cup quarter-finals on a handful of occasions, and the Uefa Cup semi-final in 1984.

In recent years they’ve established themselves again, not as the giants they once were, but as a technically gifted, easy on the eye, football side. Still well short of their fierce rivals Dinamo Zagreb, they’ve played second fiddle to them in the Croatian First League for the last four seasons. In the eyes of UEFA they are still ‘minnows’ – ranked at 185th in Europe (compared to Celtic’s 54th). However, experience tells us that these figures mean nothing, particularly when trips to Croatia are concerned. Memories of a well-past-it Robert Prosinecki running Craig Burley ragged for Croatia Zagreb are painful reminders of that.

Today’s team are made up almost entirely of Croatian players, such is the club’s philosophy on rearing their own players. Hajduk’s most impressive player would have to be Srdjan Andrić in my opinion. Andrić is currently the club captain, and operates as a ferocious ball winner in the centre of midfield. At 31 he’s no spring chicken, but nonetheless, a midfield battle between him and the likes of Beram Kayal would be intriguing.

FC Karpaty Lviv (Ukraine)
 

Such is the injection of cash into football from that part of Europe, to dismiss a club like Karpaty Lviv could have perilous consequences. A young club established only 4 years previous to Celtic winning the European Cup, Karpaty Lviv too play in green and white (stripes); they are named after the Carpathian mountains of Ukraine, but domestically have never scaled the heights that their mountainous name suggest.

Perennially a mid-table club in Ukraine, they’ve had a modicum of success lately by finishing 5th in Ukraine’s top flight in each of the last two seasons, while also qualifying for the Europa League in the process. Not the type of team to blow Celtic away with skill, or batter us with physical prowess, but a trip to Ukraine by any measure would be less than desirable in the middle of a season.

The only real threat that I’ve seen comes from their pacey Brazillian striker William Batista. His impressive form was one of the main reasons that Karpaty’s decent league finish. Not known as an out and out goalscorer, or a lavishly silky player (despite his national stereotype), quick off the mark and can run defenders ragged.

On paper Celtic should have no trouble with this Ukrainian outfit; but on paper Celtic should have done considerably better in Europe than they have since the days of Larsson and Sutton. A trip to Ukraine would be best avoided, both for the good of the domestic campaign, and to avoid an Eastern European spanner being thrown in the works.
FC Sion (Switzerland)

Perhaps lessons were learned about trips to Switzerland when Hakin and Murat Yakin embarrassed the club in Basel, and when Neuchâtel Xamax FC put five past a lackluster hoops team what seems like an age ago. Given the emergence of FC Sion in recent years, those tapes from our previous Swiss encounters could be well worth a viewing, should we draw this team in the Europa League this season.

A small club in stature, they’ve spent most of their 102-year history in the shadow of the likes of FC Zurich, FC Basel and BSC Young Boys. That was of course until last season. Sion finished 4th in the Swiss Super League, narrowly missing out on 3rd place on the last day of the season. They lifted the Swiss Cup just a few months ago, firmly putting the club back on the map.

Recurring financial problems took the club to the brink of bankruptcy in 2002. This course of events saw the club relegated and even denied a professional license in 2003. The road to recovery has been a slow one, but their recent silverware capture resounded all over Europe, as the club fired a warning flare to anyone who thinks they’re in for an easy time of it against them in the Europa League this year.

Playing at home in a modest 16,500 seater stadium, they adopt an attractive style of play, with very few high balls and some rapid midfield passing exchanges. This Swiss media have even touted the club as having an outside chance of winning the league (which equates to a club like Kilmarnock having SPL title aspirations).

The focal point of the team seems to be Serbian forward Dragan Mrđa. The towering striker only joined the club from Vojvodina last season, where he scored 35 times in 56 appearances.  The Serb has continued this rich vein of form into his career in Switzerland, finding the net 8 times in 18 appearances.

Again, with the roar of the Parkhead crowd, Celtic would most likely get a result, but away from home historically is where our problems lie.  Only time will tell if Neil Lennon’s men will get the chance to exercise the Swiss demons from Basel and Neuchâtel Xamax.

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