The first leg of the Europa League round of 32 has now been completed, and it was a hugely entertaining set of matches, with goals galore across Europe. The carrot of a spot in next season’s Champions League for the winners of this tournament means that all the big guns are intent on doing their utmost to win the famous trophy. Especially those who aren’t guaranteed Champions League qualification through their league position.
There are plenty of high-profile teams taking part in the Europa League. Let’s take a look at how the top favourites to win the competition in 2020–21 UEFA Europa League odds from Betfair got on in their first-leg matches.
Real Sociedad 0-4 Manchester United
After a couple of draws in the Premier League, and a narrow win in the FA Cup, it felt important that Manchester United laid down a marker in the Europa League to prove that their season is not stuttering. They did so in some style, with Bruno Fernandes starring in a crushing away win over Real Sociedad. Marcus Rashford and Daniel James were also among the goals as the tournament favourites showed a signal of their intent and all but booked their place in the last 16.
Wolfsberger 1-4 Tottenham Hotspur
Tottenham Hotspur’s league form has offered little to get excited about. But while they are struggling to cement themselves in the Premier League’s top four, the Europa League offers them a chance to access next season’s Champions League by another route. A convincing win over Wolfsberger, played in Budapest due to coronavirus restrictions in Austria, means they’re in the driving seat to reach the next round. Strong performances from Dele Alli, Gareth Bale and Carlos Vinícius will have pleased José Mourinho greatly. Spurs will take some stopping.
The club have been starved of trophies in recent years, but in Mourinho they have a coach used to winning, and the 58-year-old has Europa League pedigree, having won the competition with Manchester United in 2017.
Benfica 1-1 Arsenal
Both Benfica and Arsenal will have had their sights set on Europa League glory, but one of them will have to wave goodbye after the first knockout round. With the match held in Rome’s Stadio Olimpico due to coronavirus restrictions, a tight affair resulted in a 1-1 draw. Pizzi gave Benfica the lead from the penalty spot in the second half. It was a short-lived lead though, as Bukayo Saka notched an equaliser just two minutes later. Arsenal hold the edge with that away goal, but it’s still all to play for in the second leg.
FK Crvena Zvezda 2-2 AC Milan
Nothing could separate Crvena Zvezda and AC Milan either. The Italian side took the lead via an own goal by Radovan Pankov, but the hosts equalised from the spot before half-time through Guelor Kanga. Next it was Milan’s turn to be awarded a penalty, and Théo Hernandez duly delivered. But Stefano Pioli’s side couldn’t hang on for the win, and Milan Pavkov popped up in stoppage time to earn a draw for Red Star.
Milan are locked in an epic tussle for the Serie A title with city rivals Inter. So you can understand them taking their foot off the gas in the Europa League. But given their form this season, the competition offers a great chance for the historic club to enjoy yet more European glory.
Granada 2-0 Napoli
Keeping with the theme of Italian sides who fancy their chances of winning the Europa League, Napoli went to Granada hoping to score an away goal and put themselves in a good position to qualify for the last 16. However, plucky Granada seemed to take them by surprise. A first-half blitz from Yangel Herrera and Kenedy means the Spanish side hold all the cards as they head into the second leg.
With the battle for the top four in Serie A looking increasingly tight, the Europa League was a great chance for Napoli to seal their passage through the back door. However, their hopes now lie in tatters, and they’ll need a fine performance in the second leg to progress.
Lille 1-2 Ajax
Runners up in 2017, Ajax know what it takes to reach the Europa League final, and they’ve enjoyed further European success in the meantime, reaching the Champions League semi-finals in 2019. They failed to progress beyond the group stage this year, however, and now find themselves in the Europa League.
But with an impressive win over Lille, they’ve set themselves up well for the return leg and might just fancy going all the way in the Europa League this year.