Dubai: While 13 other English teams look on in envy during the annual foray into Europe’s top competitions, there are two clubs that would wish they could be somewhere else.
Yet another disappointing start to the Premier League season for both Manchester United and Arsenal means that their bosses — Ole Gunnar Solskjaer and Unai Emery respectively — will demand nothing less than following Chelsea last season and lifting the Europa League trophy in the continent’s second-tier tournament.
While Liverpool and Manchester City look like a solid bet to close out the top two slots in the domestic tile race already, and Tottenham Hotspur and Chelsea fairing well to secure third and fourth, success in the Europa League will be the only way to guarantee a return to Champions League football for two teams whose fans demand the best.
While England’s sides will be under pressure before the matches even kick-off, there are plenty of other mouthwatering clashes to look forward to on Thursday night.
Here is a look at the best on offer this week.
1. Manchester United v Astana
The Europa League winners in 2017 will host Astana in Group L as Solskjaer’s side face opponents from Kazakhstan for the first time history. They will fancy their chances to get through a group that also includes Partizan Belgrade and former finalists AZ Alkmaar of the Netherlands. But any slip-ups could be very costly for their Norwegian boss, before they even get to the tougher games in the knockout stages.
2. Eintracht Frankfurt v Arsenal
Emery’s Arsenal return to the competition after last season’s crushing 4-1 defeat by Chelsea in the final in Baku. That win took the Blues to the Champions League this season and the Gunners will be determined to go one step further this time as a top-four spot in the Premier League may be beyond them. Arsenal visit Eintracht Frankfurt to kick off their campaign, with 10-time Belgian champions Standard Liege and Portugal’s Vitoria Guimaraes also in Group F.
3. Rennes v Celtic
Celtic won the Scottish Premiership title for the eighth time in succession in May, yet still they find themselves absent from the Champions League group stages yet again as they failed to get through the qualification stages. They face a tough trip to French Cup holders Rennes in Group E. With Italian Cup holders Lazio and CFR Cluj, the Romanian side to whom they lost in Champions League qualifying, Celtic will be up against it to progress.
4. Rangers v Feyenoord
A clash of the Premier League old boys as Liverpool hero Steven Gerrard’s Rangers are at home to Manchester United stalwart Jaap Stam’s Feyenoord. Like their Glasgow neighbours Celtic, Rangers have it all to do to get out of a group that also contains Lisbon legends Porto and Swiss champions Young Boys.
5. Wolves v Braga
The Londoners had to make it to the group stages the hard way by fighting through qualification and they have been rewarded with a visit from Portuguese side Braga in their opening game at Molineux.
Nuno Espirito Santo’s team came through six matches just to reach the group stage. They beat Torino 5-3 on aggregate in the play-offs.
“I think any team in the Europa League are a good team who we will respect going up against them. We will give everything, try to play and try to beat any team,” said Wolves winger Adama Traore.
“Any player wants to play in Europe, but the Europa League is exciting, it is a new thing for us and it’s a good thing.”