There can be no complaints about the way the Europa League group stage draw panned out from the La Liga clubs involved. Having avoided the potential nastiness of Groups J (Lazio (It), Trabzonspor (Tur), Legia (Pol), Apollon (Cyp) )& K (Tottenham (Eng) , Anzhi Makhachkala (Rus), Sheriff (Mol), Tromso (Nor), they really ought to breath a sigh of relief.
Group A: Valencia, Swansea City (Eng), Kuban Krasnodar (Rus), St Gallen (Swi)
Potentially the toughest of the three groups, but by the same token, it’s been handed to the Spanish side with the most European experience.
Swansea have blossomed under Michael Laudrup and will present an interesting challenge to Valencia, especially when they visit South Wales. Wilfried Bony is potentially the craftiest signing of the transfer window, with the big clubs so fixated with splashing crazy money around on big names that they forgot to get into a bidding war for a striker who was superb in the Eredivisie last season. His addition to a side which protects the ball intelligently will add an interesting level of support to Michu up front. With Pablo already in dazzling form this season, Valencia might get an early reminder of how premature they were to let him go.
Kuban Krasnodar have dangerous strikers too: Ibrahima Balde is big and quick, and Djibril Cisse is starting to find his feet following his Summer move from QPR. The Russians showed that they shouldn’t be underestimated in the qualifying round, beating Feyenoord home and away. Don’t think Valencia will be able to rely on the old cliche of Eastern European sides struggling when they venture west, as Kuban showed real fortitude in the Netherlands, fighting back to win despite an awful start in which they conceded a goal and a penalty in the opening seven minutes.
A trip to Krasnodar will be an gruellling proposition as well: bad news for Los Che but great news for Athletic Bilbao, as Valencia play in the Basque Country three days after they play in southern Russia.
St Gallen look the weakest side on paper, but their 4-2 victory away to Spartak Moscow suggests they are no pushovers.
Group H: Sevilla, Freiburg (Ger), Estoril (Por), Slovan Liberec (Cz)
Sevilla should be pleased with this. Getting drawn with a German side ought ot be a reason for trepidation, but Freiburg aren’t the worst Bundesliga side to run up against. That’s not to devalue their achievements last season as they were terrific as they startled a number of more established names to the extent that they entered the last game of the season with qualification for the Champions League still in their own hands. The problem is they’ve lost a number of key players from that side and their expectations have been adjusted downwards. Juggling the Europa League and the Bundesliga with a small squad means something has to give, and Freiburg are unlikely to want to jeopardise their place in the league to pursue a European pipe dream.
With a combined stadium capacity of 18,000, Estoril and Slovan decent but hardly sides to strike fear into a strong team. Slovan won the Czech league two seasons ago and came third last time, but this is the first time they’ve got through the preliminary stages of any European competition since 2006, when coincidentally they drew 0-0 with Sevilla. They do have an impressive record against Spanish sides, having eliminated Real Mallorca, Celta Vigo and Racing Santander in the previous decade. Estoril crept into the final Europa League spot in Portugal with two rounds of the season left, profiting from the dismal form of Sporting and the demise of some of Portugal’s recent European representatives.
Sevilla ought to be looking to win this group and add to their proud record in this competition.
Group I: Lyon (It), Real Betis, Guimarães (Por), Rijeka (Cro)
Betis haven’t got quite such a friendly group as their neighbours, but still ought to be confident of making progress. Real Sociedad showed that while Lyon are no fools, they’re hardly the side they were five years ago. Their youthful squad shows promise, but Betis ought to earn some points from them.
Guimarães, like Estoril, are hardly the strongest Portuguese League has to offer; after all, they only finished ninth last season. They qualified for Europe by winning the Portuguese Cup although they rode their luck along the way. Twice they needed penalties to get through the earlier rounds, although to be fair they did knock Sporting Braga out too and grabbed a couple of late goals to beat Benfica in the final.
Rijeka might be interesting though. Their elimination of Stuttgart in the preliminaries through a 94th minute goal in Germany was impressive and their picturesque stadium, wedged in between the coast and a cliff, can be intimidating.