A day after the Champions League groups were drawn, the inaugural Europa League groups were set today. There are 12 groups of 4 teams, playing a double round robin, mirroring the Champions League. The top two teams in each group advance, at which point the 8 third place finishers from the Champions League groups will join them. There are some very interesting groups:
Ajax will like their chances here, with Croatian champions Dinamo Zagreb. Anderlecht have a storied European history and will not be an easy out either.
This is a killer group. Valencia is an elite team and will be favored to advance far in the competition. However, their group is stacked four deep. Lille may be the weakest team in the group, Slavia is only two years removed from being in the Champions League, and Genoa is a talented, attacking squad despite losing their top players over the summer to Inter.
Hapoel Tel Aviv
Hamburg will like their draw here. Celtic have a strong chance of advancing, though Rapid Vienna may be a tricky proposition for the Scots.
Another strong group, with Sporting, Heerenveen and Hertha all capable of advancing. Sporting just missed out on the Champions League, losing their playoff to Fiorentina. Heerenveen has a long history of employing an attacking 4-3-3, though they are fragile in the back. Hertha, interestingly enough, apparently are so good that they have Kaka sitting on their bench. Not that Kaka.
This will be an interesting group, with Roma strong favorites, but from there on out it could be any of the remaining three teams finishing second. Fulhamerica will not be pleased with having to travel to Sofia. Basel is quite a pleasant city however.
Greek side Panathinaikos facing off against Turkish side Galatasaray is one of the highlights of the Europa League group stage. Those ought to be intense matches. The Romanian league isn't the worst, so Dinamo Bucharest won't be the worst either. Sturm Graz filed for bankruptcy three years ago, so how good can they be?
Red Bull Salzburg
Villareal and Lazio will be strongly favored here. Levski Sofia have had their moments in Europe but I won't pretend to know about them. Apparently Red Bull focuses all their resources on winning that impossible goal, the Austrian Bundesliga, while disregarding their MLS outfit. Let's predict they don't get far.
Fenerbahce has spent big in recent years to build a strong team, evidenced by their surprise run to the Champions League quarter finals in 2007-08. They're the big boys here, along with Steaua, the other half of Bucharest's two football powers. FC Twente for those who don't know is managed by English cast-off Steve McClaren. Finishing second in the Eredivisie is a very nice accomplishment. Getting embarassed 6-0 by Arsenal in the Champions League qualifying playoffs, not so much. Let's hope FC Sheriff plays Bob Marley at its home games.
Another tricky goup. The Portugeuse giants spent big this summer bringing in some young Brazilian future stars as well as Javier Saviola, whose speed and quickness made him one of the most dangerous players on Winning Eleven despite being on Barca's bench. Everton are a question mark after their mixed displays so far this early season, AEK Athens will provide a tough road match for all, and BATE made it to the Champions League group stage last season, so they could be fiesty as well.
Shakhtar are the defending champions, having won the final UEFA Cup. They will be heavy favorites to advance. Partizan and Toulouse will be tough outfits making this another good group, with any team capable of advancing.
PSV has historically been one of the big boys in the Netherlands and they usually put in a very good showing in Europe, traditionally in the Champions League. Last season saw a much weaker team and they are no sure thing to advance this season. They also have Carlos Salcido, so I'll be rooting against them. Sparta has produced quite a few notable Czech footballers over the years, though you probably never heard of them until after they left Prague. Cluj shocked everyone last year when they beat Roma and tied Chelsea in the Champions League group stage, so even I would venture to say they shouldn't be taken lightly.
Werder Bremen, last year's beaten UEFA Cup finalists, will be the heavy favorites in Group L, the 12th and final group. Austrian Vienna finished third in the Austrian Bundesliga, so I bet they won't be scaring anybody. Hala Madrid will tell you that Bilbao will be reaching the semifinals of this competition by virtue of hailing from Spain, and while that may be a stretch, I'm inclined to think they can progress comfortably here. Nacional is famous for producing Cristiano Ronaldo. However, they averaged 2,000 fans a game in their 5,000-seat stadium in Portugal last year. The University of Maryland does better than that.