The Europa League group stage kicks off Thursday. With some big name clubs taking part in this season’s tournament, it’s time to preview the groups. In part one, we’ll look at Groups A through F.
Group A: Manchester United (England), Fenerbahce (Turkey), Feyenoord (Netherlands), Zorya Luhansk (Ukraine).
Manchester United are obviously the big favorites to get out of the group, and one of the favorites to take home the whole tournament. With the additions of Zlatan Ibrahimovic, Paul Pogba, Henrikh Mkhitaryan and Eric Bailly, the Red Devils are set to make a statement and make their way into Europe’s elite once more.
Fenerbahce will surely put up a fight, and it will be tough for the other teams in the group to travel to Turkey, where Fenerbahce has a very rabid fan base that will do their best to help their side. Feyenoord has started the season strong, picking up five wins in five league games and topping the Eredivisie standings. Zorya Luhansk could be a tricky fixture on the road for the other teams, as they will have to travel to east Ukraine. The team has lost out in the qualification playoffs the two previous seasons, but managed to get into the group stage this time around.
Group B: Olympiacos (Greece), APOEL (Cyprus), Young Boys (Switzerland), Astana (Kazakhstan).
Greek champions Olympiacos fell short in the Champions League qualifiers, but booked a spot in the Europa League after beating Portuguese side Arouca 3-1 on aggregate. APOEL has dominated the league in Cyprus, picking up four straight league titles. They fell to FC Copenhagen in the final round of Champions League qualifiers and had to settle for a place in the Europa League.
Young Boys also fell in the last round of Champions League qualifiers, as they were demolished by Borussia Monchengladbach 9-2 on aggregate. Astana became the first team from Kazakhstan to make it into the Champions League group stage last season, but they failed to repeat that accomplishment this year as they fell in the qualifiers to Celtic. They defeated BATE Borisov to earn a place in the Europa League group stage.
Group C: Anderlecht (Belgium), Saint-Etienne (France), Mainz (Germany), Gabala (Azerbaijan).
Belgian side Anderlecht defeated Slavia Prague in the qualifiers for the Europa League after falling out of the Champions League qualifiers to Rostov from Russia. They currently sit in second place in the Belgian Pro League after six matches with 12 points, one point behind leaders Zulte-Waregem. Saint-Etienne defeated AEK Athens and Beitar Jerusalem to earn a spot in the group stage after finishing sixth in Ligue 1 last season.
FSV Mainz 05 got an automatic spot in the group stage thanks to their sixth-place finish in the Bundesliga last season. The Germans have started this season with a loss to Borussia Dortmund and a 4-4 draw against Hoffenheim. Gabala are back in the group stage after making their first appearance in the tournament last season. They went through all the four rounds of qualification, beating Samtredia, MTK Budapest, Lille, and Maribor to earn their place in the group stage. They will be looking for their first ever win in the tournament, as they finished last in their group last season with four losses and two draws.
Group D: Zenit Saint Petersburg (Russia), AZ Alkmaar (Netherlands), Maccabi Tel Aviv (Israel), Dundalk (Ireland).
Zenit earned an automatic spot in the group stage after finishing third in the Russian Premier League last season. The Russians have a strong squad and will being going for the title. AZ Alkmaar defeated PAS Giannina (3-1 on aggregate) and FK Vojvodina (3-0 on aggregate) to make it into the group stage.
Maccabi Tel Aviv finished second in the Israeli Premier League last season, earning them a spot in the first round of Europa League qualifications. They defeated ND Gorica, Kairat Almaty, Pandurii Targu Jiu, and Hajduk Split to make it into the group stage. Irish champions Dundalk became the first Irish side to make it to Champions League playoff qualifiers. They ultimately fell to Legia Warsaw, but were awarded a spot in the Europa League.
Group E: Viktoria Plzen (Czech Republic), AS Roma (Italy), Austria Wien (Austria), Astra Giurgiu (Romania).
Czech champions Viktoria Plzen stumbled in the Champions League qualifiers. After beating Qarabag FK in the third round, they fell to Ludogorets Razgrad in the qualification playoffs, pushing them into the Europa League. Roma suffered a similar fate, as they were knocked out in the Champions League qualification playoffs by FC Porto (4-1 on aggregate).
Austria Wien finished third in the Austrian Bundesliga last season, earning them entry into the second round of Europa League qualifications. They defeated KS Kukesi, Spartak Trnava and Rosenborg BK en route to the group stage. Astra Giurgiu are reigning champions of Romania, but fell to FC Copenhagen in the Champions League qualifiers. That pitted them against West Ham United in the final round of Europa League qualifiers, where they took a 2-1 aggregate win over the Hammers.
Group F: Athletic Bilbao (Spain), KRC Genk (Belgium), Rapid Wien (Austria), Sassuolo (Italy).
Athletic Bilbao earned a direct spot in the group stage of the tournament after finishing fifth in La Liga last season, being just two points shy of snagging fourth place and a Champions League qualification place. KRC Genk finished fourth in the Belgian Pro League and defeated FK Buducnost, Cork City and Lokomotiva Zagreb to reach the group stage.
Rapid Wien were runners-up last season in the Austrian Bundesliga, earning them a spot in the third qualification round. They defeated Torpedo Belaz Zhodino and AS Trencin to earn a spot in the group stage. Sassuolo has come a long way since winning promotion to Serie A in 2013. The Black and Greens finished sixth in the Serie A standings last season, winning a spot in the third round of Europa League qualifiers. They defeated Luzern (4-1 on aggregate) and Red Star Belgrade (4-1 on aggregate) to reach the group stage.