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Europa League preview: Arsenal face stiff competition





  • The Europa League returns on Thursday night with the last-32, first-leg ties
  • Arsenal see the Europa League as their chance to return to Champions League
  • They will face snow and freezing temperatures against Swedish side Ostersunds
  • A high quality field will try and prevent the Gunners reaching the final
  • Atletico Madrid, Napoli, Lyon, Marseille and Borussia Dortmund are all in

By Adam Shergold for MailOnline

Published: 07:55 EST, 15 February 2018 | Updated: 10:10 EST, 15 February 2018

The UEFA Europa League makes a welcome return on Thursday evening and the knockout stages of the competition promise to be one of the most hotly-contested of all-time.

Some high-profile teams have dropped down from the Champions League, adding to the luminaries already battling their way through the competition and all have their sights set on the final to be held in Lyon on May 16.

Arsenal are aiming to replicate the achievement of Manchester United last season in winning the Europa League and gaining a place in the Champions League for next season.

Arsenal's Mesut Ozil, Shkodran Mustafi and Sead Kolasinac arrive in snowy Ostersund for the first leg of their Europa League last-32 tie 
Arsenal's Mesut Ozil, Shkodran Mustafi and Sead Kolasinac arrive in snowy Ostersund for the first leg of their Europa League last-32 tie 

Arsenal's Mesut Ozil, Shkodran Mustafi and Sead Kolasinac arrive in snowy Ostersund for the first leg of their Europa League last-32 tie 

Arsene Wenger is under pressure to return Arsenal to the Champions League next season
Arsene Wenger is under pressure to return Arsenal to the Champions League next season

Arsene Wenger is under pressure to return Arsenal to the Champions League next season

Manchester United are the reigning Europa League champions, having beaten Ajax 2-0
Manchester United are the reigning Europa League champions, having beaten Ajax 2-0

Manchester United are the reigning Europa League champions, having beaten Ajax 2-0

But their path will be blocked by a number of big names with similar aims, including Atletico Madrid, Borussia Dortmund, Napoli, Lazio, AC Milan, Lyon and Marseille.

Last Saturday's defeat by Tottenham in the north London derby has left Arsenal eight points off the top four in the Premier League, a deficit few would back them to make up.

With Arsene Wenger under pressure to restore the team to the Champions League next season, the Gunners will surely put all their focus on trying to win the Europa League as United did last term.

They have been drawn against Swedish side Ostersunds in the last-32, with the first leg set to take place in snow and freezing temperatures in the centre of Sweden on Thursday night.

Their opponents are managed by an Englishman in Graham Potter and have English players in their ranks, including midfielder Curtis Edwards, a man who just three years ago was working as a labourer on building sites close to Arsenal's Emirates Stadium home.

Assuming Arsenal advance, far tougher challenges will await. Atletico, for instance, are a club that have become accustomed to reaching the final of the Champions League in the recent past and are the bookmakers' favourite to win the Europa League this time around.

Antoine Griezmann stars for an Atletico Madrid side who are the bookies' favourites to win
Antoine Griezmann stars for an Atletico Madrid side who are the bookies' favourites to win

Antoine Griezmann stars for an Atletico Madrid side who are the bookies' favourites to win

Diego Simeone and his Atletico side have reached two Champions League finals in recent seasons but now return to a competition they won in 2010 and 2012
Diego Simeone and his Atletico side have reached two Champions League finals in recent seasons but now return to a competition they won in 2010 and 2012

Diego Simeone and his Atletico side have reached two Champions League finals in recent seasons but now return to a competition they won in 2010 and 2012

Diego Simeone's side finished third behind Roma and Chelsea in a tough Champions League group to find themselves in this situation, but they have pedigree in the continent's secondary tournament, winning it in 2010 and 2012.

Atleti, currently second behind Barcelona in La Liga, will start as strong favourites against Danish side Copenhagen in the last 32.

Napoli are another shark in the tank, having surprisingly finished six points behind Shakhtar Donetsk in their Champions League group.

The current Serie A leaders have been handed a testing draw against the Bundesliga side RB Leipzig, whose maiden Champions League campaign also ended in a third-place finish behind Besiktas and Porto.

Thursday's first leg fixtures 

Astana vs Sporting Lisbon (4pm)

6pm KICK-OFFS

Borussia Dortmund vs Atalanta

Ludogorets Razgrad vs Milan

Marseille vs Sporting Braga

Nice vs Lokomotiv Moscow

Ostersunds vs Arsenal

Real Sociedad vs Red Bull Salzburg

Spartak Moscow vs Athletic Bilbao 

8.05pm KICK-OFFS

AEK Athens vs Dynamo Kiev

Celtic vs Zenit St Petersburg

Copenhagen vs Atletico Madrid

Steaua Bucharest vs Lazio

Lyon vs Villarreal

Napoli vs RB Leipzig

Partizan Belgrade vs Viktoria Plzen

All UK times

Napoli are having a great season in Serie A but must now return their attention to Europe
Napoli are having a great season in Serie A but must now return their attention to Europe

Napoli are having a great season in Serie A but must now return their attention to Europe

Maurizio Sarri's Napoli team play some of the most exciting football in Europe at the moment and they have such stars as Dries Mertens, Marek Hamsik and Lorenzo Insigne at their disposal.

However, you wonder how seriously they will take the competition given their excellent chance of winning the Scudetto for the first time since 1990, thereby ending the recent domination of Juventus.

Borussia Dortmund are another strong side who have dropped down from the Champions League, where they performed badly to take only two points from a group containing Tottenham, Real Madrid and APOEL Nicosia.

Perhaps they will have better fortune in the Europa, but have been handed a tricky-looking tie with the Italians Atalanta, who stuffed eight goals past Everton over two group matches.

Borussia Dortmund have returned to winning form just in time for the Europa League return
Borussia Dortmund have returned to winning form just in time for the Europa League return

Borussia Dortmund have returned to winning form just in time for the Europa League return

Dortmund have regained their winning form since the arrival of Michy Batshuayi on loan from Chelsea last month, but they too may be torn between trying to go the whole way in the Europa League or safeguarding their present third place in the Bundesliga and securing a return of Champions League nights next year.

Dortmund have been installed as the third favourites with the bookies behind Atletico and Arsenal, with Napoli fourth.

A strong Italian contingent continues with Lazio and Milan, who'll play Steaua Bucharest and Ludogorets Razgrad respectively in the round of 32.

Both are clubs with faded glories - Milan's glorious European successes certainly seem a lifetime ago - but they could be a decent outside bet especially given the springboard of winnable ties.

Lazio are another one of the Italian representatives hoping to go far in the Europa League
Lazio are another one of the Italian representatives hoping to go far in the Europa League

Lazio are another one of the Italian representatives hoping to go far in the Europa League

Milan are hoping to add to their extensive collection of European silverware come May
Milan are hoping to add to their extensive collection of European silverware come May

Milan are hoping to add to their extensive collection of European silverware come May

Lyon reached the semi-finals last season before being rolled over by Ajax and they return for another tilt at the title starting with a tie against Villarreal.

How they'd love to reach a final held in their own stadium and with the likes of Nabil Fekir, Mariano and Memphis Depay in their side, they have a chance.

They are currently in the top four in Ligue 1, as are Marseille, who have been drawn against the Portuguese side Braga.

Marseille are having a good season, even if they scraped through their group, and haven't lost since December with the likes of Florian Thauvin, Morgan Sanson, Dimitri Payet and Valere Germain ones to watch.

Memphis Depay in action for Lyon, the city which will host the Europa League final in May
Memphis Depay in action for Lyon, the city which will host the Europa League final in May

Memphis Depay in action for Lyon, the city which will host the Europa League final in May

The other sides to drop from the Champions League are Spartak Moscow, Sporting Lisbon, CSKA Moscow and Celtic.

The Scottish champions have been handed a testing draw against another Russian outfit, Zenit St Petersburg.

As ever with the Europa League and its Thursday nights, it helps to avoid a long-haul trip. Sporting Lisbon and Astana have been the unluckiest sides in the last-32 draw as they face a 15-hour, 7,600 mile round-trip in a true East meets West fixture.

Five ties to watch in the last-32 

BORUSSIA DORTMUND vs ATALANTA

Dortmund have won their last two matches in the Bundesliga, with new loanee from Chelsea Michy Batshuayi starring, to recover from a barren spell.

They have never won the Europa League but may not be willing to risk the resources this season as they try to safeguard third place in the Bundesliga and Champions League return.

Atalanta impressed against Everton in the group stage, scoring eight goals in the two games, and are currently eighth in the Serie A table.

Live on BT Sport 1, Thursday at 6pm

COPENHAGEN vs ATLETICO MADRID

Diego Simeone's Atletico were Champions League finalists in 2014 and 2016 but dropped into the Europa League after finishing behind Roma and Chelsea in their Champions League group.

They won the secondary competition in 2010 and 2012 and will feel they can go all the way once again this time. They are the favourites with the bookmakers.

Copenhagen have played only twice since the Danish winter break, winning one and losing one.

Live on BT Sport ESPN and BT Sport Showcase, Thursday at 8.05pm

NAPOLI vs RB LEIPZIG

A meeting of two teams who have dropped down from the Champions League as Maurizio Sarri's exciting Serie A leaders take on the side currently second in the Bundesliga.

Napoli have a dilemma, however, because concentrating on the Europa League will detract from their bid to win the Scudetto for the first time since 1990 and prevent Juventus winning a seventh straight title.

Leipzig are fresh to European competition this season and could well be a dark horse if they can negotiate this tricky draw.

Live on BT Sport 1, Thursday at 8.05pm

LYON vs VILLARREAL

With the final set to be held in their own stadium, there is a real incentive for last season's semi-finalists Lyon to go for it.

They are having a pretty good season and could well qualify for the Champions League next season through their league position in Ligue 1.

Villarreal have a chance of finishing in the top four in Spain but would have to bridge a five-point gap to Real Madrid.

Live on BT Sport 3, Thursday at 8.05pm

LUDOGORETS vs AC MILAN

Milan's European glory days seem a distant memory now but they are attempting to rebuild their reputation under Gennaro Gattuso and a run deep into the Europa League would certainly aid that.

They haven't lost yet in 2018 and have been handed a favourable draw against the Bulgarians Ludogorets, who haven't played a match since the middle of December.

Live on BT Sport ESPN and BT Sport Showcase, Thursday at 6pm 

 


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Europa League preview: Arsenal face stiff competition
Paul Sloane

He is a leading authority on business trends including ‘big data’, self-employment and the social media revolution. He’s the author of the award-winning book, Marketing Shortcuts for the Self-Employed (2011, Wiley) and a regular speaker for Bloomberg TV. He has spoken about global mega trends, big data and the social media revolution at conferences and business events around the world .

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