Europa League Preview And Predictions - Group Stage One
The opening exchanges of the Europa League Group stages takes center stage on Thursday with several British clubs in action. In our group stage one preview and predictions we feature West Ham who travel to Zagreb, Celtic who head down to Sevilla to take on Betis, Rangers who welcome Lyon and Leicester who take on Italian giants Napoli.
Zagreb v West Ham
Zagreb are probably the toughest team West Ham have to face in their group and last term, the Croatian outfit won four of six unbeaten group stage matches in this competition. They then emerged victorious in both legs of their last 32 clash with Krasnodar, knocked out Premier League opposition in Tottenham, before eventually succumbing to eventual champions Villarreal in the quarter-finals courtesy of two narrow defeats.
On home turf alone, Zagreb have lost just twice in 22 European games since September 2018, with Man City the other side to down them, while this spell even saw them thump Italian side Atalanta 4-0. They’re certainly no pushovers and the Hammers should expect a hostile atmosphere to greet them on Thursday.
Seven of Zagreb’s last eight fixtures have ended with fewer than three goals, as have seven of their last eight on home turf, so this should be a fairly tense encounter. In fact, the first half has been goalless in six of Zagreb’s past eight on home turf, while they’ve been level at the break in eight of their past 13 at home in Europe – including clashes with the likes of Man City, Spurs, Feyenoord and Shakhtar Donetsk.
Real Betis v Celtic
Real Betis are yet to take a win this season and after disappointing stalemates with Mallorca and Cadiz, they went down narrowly at home to Real Madrid in their last outing. All three games saw fewer than three goals, meaning that 12 of their 15 outings since mid-March have gone that way now. Moreover, that’s also been the case in 14 of their past 18 European games since 2013/14, and we wouldn’t expect them to be gung-ho in the opening game in what looks set to be a tight group also featuring Bayer Leverkusen.
Celtic’s scorelines under Ange Postecoglou haven’t been so conservative, with eight of their past 10 appearances featuring at least three goals. However, it’s worth noting that those two exceptions came against the best teams they’ve faced over this spell, facing AZ Alkmaar in Europe and Rangers domestically. It’s also worth bearing in mind that the Hoops have been far more prolific on their own patch, having already secured two 6-0 victories at Parkhead this term, while they have a month to wait before stellar summer signing Kyogo Furuhashi is back to lead the line.
UNDER 2.5 GOALS
Rangers v Lyon
Lyon have recovered from taking just one point from their opening three league games to since take maximum points from Nantes and Strasbourg, with former Celtic men Mousa Dembele and Jason Denayer amongst the goals last time out. The former will be keen to add to his impressive record against the Gers, having bagged seven goals in nine appearances during his time in Scotland.
Rangers are picking up points without being at their best and resilience was a cornerstone of their European run last term. Although they boast an excellent clean sheet record at Ibrox since the start of last season, it’s certainly true that they’ve been more prone to high-scoring games in Europe when compared to their domestic duties.
Both teams have scored in eight of Rangers’ past 12 European matches, with Rangers conceding at least twice in eight of these as well. These games have averaged 3.5 goals per game, with two of the three clean sheets the Gers have managed coming against Armenian outfit Alashkert.
Steven Gerrard also has an issue at centre-back with both Conor Goldson and Filip Helander major doubts, meaning a likely partnership of Leon Balogun and Calvin Bassey will take to the field. With that in mind, Lyon should fancy their chances of registering on the scoreboard, the hosts rarely fail to score at Ibrox themselves.
BOTH TEAMS TO SCORE
Leicester v Napoli
Napoli continued their perfect start to the season with a hard-fought victory over Juventus as Kalidou Koulibaly struck late on. UK quarantine rules could disrupt them here however, with David Ospina, Victor Oimhen, Amir Rrahmani and Koulibaly potentially unavailable having ben in countries on the red list during the recent international break. Meanwhile, they’ll be sweating on the fitness of Lorenzo Insigne after he was forced off during the second half, though he is expected to recover in time for this clash.
Leicester’s results so far this term have been a little more mixed. A win over Man City in the Community Shield has been followed by two wins and two defeats in the league, though in fairness, those losses were inflicted by West Ham when playing most of the game with 10 men and a narrow defeat to man City at the weekend. Still, neither of their victories over Wolves and Norwich were especially convincing, with the Canaries the only side they’ve put more than one goal past so far.
Although Wesley Fofana and James Justin remain sidelined, Brendan Rodgers’ options at the back are looking stronger with Jannik Vestergaard and Johnny Evans returning to fitness, with the former impressing on his return to the starting line-up against City. This has all the makings of a tight encounter between the favourites for this group, and a stalemate would come as no surprise here.