The Europa League – Sevilla and Beyond
As the Christmas festivities die down, the winter break begins, and the transfer window flies open, it is a good time to assess the rest of the season for Lazio, paying particular attention to their European exploits. Here we look at their round of 32 opponents as well as the other big players still vying for the trophy. We also take a look at Serie A’s performance as a whole on the European stage.
The Italians in Europe
After failing to qualify for the world cup in Russia, and the soul searching, recriminations and loss of prestige that came with that, it was important that Italian clubs stood up to be counted in the two European competitions this season. In truth, however, it has been a mixed season for representatives from Serie A so far. Juventus are one of the favorites for the Champions League, but elsewhere Napoli and Inter failed to progress and join Lazio in the Europa. Milan meanwhile could only manage third place in their group and drop out of European competition altogether. While it was anything but a stroll for Lazio, they ensured their Europa League ambitions would still be alive in 2019 with a game to spare.
Bearing in mind the draw was seeded, there were a lot harder clubs Lazio could have faced than the one from the Andalusian capital. That said, Sevilla will pose a very significant threat. Taking a look at the odds and stats, unreliable though those may be, it shows just how significant a threat they are. In the UEFA rankings, Lazio recently slipped one place to 39th. Their opponents at the Stadio Olimpico on Valentine’s night sit in 8th. That is one place behind Manchester City and two behind PSG.
The bookmakers tell a similar story. The Spanish club are 5th favorites, just behind Napoli and Inter, while Lazio fails to make it into the top ten. The odds for that game on the 14thare a lot closer, however, and it is the first leg which will very likely all but decide the fixture.
Sevilla’s route to the last 32 saw them top their group, but only courtesy of goal difference ahead of Russian side FC Krasnodar and was characterized by a string of red cards and inconsistency. They currently sit third in La Liga, one place and three points (at the time of writing) ahead of Real Madrid. They are just two points behind Atletico, and five behind leaders Barcelona. Though obviously, this points to a quality side, the chance to finish in their highest league position for a decade, and with it qualify for the Champions League, may well mean that the Europa League is a distraction.
The Next 6 Weeks
Looking at the respective form tables does not give too much cause for optimism, but if a day is a long time in football, the next six weeks could be a lifetime. There is much talk surrounding possible additions to Inzaghi’s squad, and there is little doubt that there are areas that need strengthening – a debate or several debates for another time. Chances are then, that the team that runs out in the first leg will look differently, and hopefully will play differently, than that which did so against Eintracht and Apollon.
It may be the same story on the other side of the Pyrenees, but several of the Spanish side’s stars are attracting attention from EPL clubs. Far from strengthening, January may see, if not an outright weakening of Pablo Machín’s side, then an unbalancing of it. Either way, both sides’ first foray into European competition of the new year may be different from what has come before.
If the Europa League is seen as a distraction, then the fixture list could have been kinder for Sevilla. They play both Atletico and Real Madrid in the weeks preceding the match against Lazio and then host Barcelona three days after the second leg.
Outside of Italy – and Spain – the winners of the competition are likely to come from the EPL. With the winners now guaranteed a place in the Champions League, the competition is being taken a lot more seriously by those clubs teetering on the verge of Champions League qualification in their domestic leagues. Arsenal and Chelsea both fall firmly into that category, and with new coaches at their respective helms, will be looking to secure not just qualification, but their first piece of silverware in their very first season.