March 15 – For most football fans focus this week has been on the big European ties, like Chelsea vs Borussia Dortmund, Man City vs RB Leipzig and tonight’s Real Madrid vs Liverpool. But if you drop down a tier, there are plenty of mouth-watering matchups in both the Europa League and the Europa Conference League.
OddsChecker, which compares European football odds and free bets, has made English duo Manchester United and Arsenal the favourites for the Europea League this season. They face off against Real Betis and Sporting CP respectively. Italian giants Juventus are also in the competition, and they will battle Bundesliga side Freiburg for a spot in the last eight.
Those three big guns will garner the majority of attention from media outlets and pundits alike. However, there are a number of perceived smaller teams still going strong in Europe’s secondary competition this season.
It is worth taking a closer look at some of the unheralded teams that will be facing off against each other in the Europa League round of 16.
The Union Derby
The first tie that catches the eye is the match-up between Union Berlin and Belgium’s Union Saint-Gilloise. The side from the German capital has been in wonderful form all season and they are still part of the title fight against Bayern Munich and Borussia Dortmund. While those two behemoths have pulled away somewhat in recent weeks, Die Eisernen still find themselves in third place in the German top flight and are aiming to secure a spot in the UEFA Champions League for the first time in their history.
Their opponents from Belgian know title race heartache all too well. Last year, they led the Belgian Pro League all season long. In the championship round, they were paired up against Club Brugge, Anderlecht, and Royal Antwerp and, in the end, it was too much for them to handle. They were aiming to pick up their first Belgian championship in 87 years however, but were eventually pipped to the crown by Brugge, who claimed their third consecutive title.
The pair met twice in Group D, with the away side picking up a 1-0 win in both matches. It was the Belgians who eventually topped the group, meaning that Berlin had to face dutch heavyweights Ajax in the playoff round.
After a goalless draw in Amsterdam, they managed to earn a 3-1 victory in Berlin to secure their spot in the last 16. The teams already having an aggregate score of 1-1 in matches against each other this term, so we expect this two-legged tie will be a tight and cagey affair.
Ukrainian team Shakhtar Donetsk’s progression to the knockout stages of the Europa League is impressive. They finished third in their UEFA Champions League group behind reigning champions Real Madrid and RB Leipzig.
That set up a playoff round tie against French outfit Rennes. After a 3-3 aggregate draw – which saw the Ukrainians net a 119th-minute equaliser – Shakhtar eventually progressed via a penalty shootout. They will now face last year’s UEFA Europa Conference League finalists Feyenoord for a spot in the quarterfinals.
The Ukrainian outfit are currently locked in a domestic title fight with Dnipro-1. Their Europa League opponents, meanwhile, sit at the top of the Eredivisie, three points clear of reigning champions Ajax. Both teams will fancy their chances of progressing from this tie and into the last eight. From there, who knows how far either side can go, with knockout football being as unpredictable as it is.
Shakhtar will play the first leg at ‘home’, however, that home tie will take place inside Warsaw’s Stadion Wojska Polskiego. While they aren’t actually playing in their home stadium or even their home country, Shaktar will have plenty of support from the Polish locals, and they will be hoping to secure a first-leg lead to defend in Rotterdam.
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