Who will take up the gauntlet laid down by Sevilla’s progression to the Champions League? And which clubs will be considered UEFA Cup favourites out of the first-round participants (i.e. not the Champions League dropouts)?
The first batch of UEFA Cup matches takes place this evening, with the competition as strong as ever, although it will undoubtedly suffer from the absence of the great performers of the past two years, double-champions Sevilla (who may well find their way back into the competition if they fail to finish in the top two of their Champions’ League group — a mechanism which in my opinion is debatable, but a debate that we shall leave for another day).
English hopes rest on Blackburn, Bolton, Everton and Tottenham. Whilst Bolton and Tottenham have suffered exceptionally disappointing starts to the season, with Bolton in particular suffering from the loss of the Sam Allardyce regime, Everton and Blackburn have started extremely strongly, with Mark Hughes’ team proving once more supremely difficult to break down (evidenced by their excellent performances against Chelsea and Arsenal) and Everton, whilst unable to keep clean sheets, generally offering up an attacking game full of flair and verve, certainly in the first few matches of the season. Players such as Arteta and Yakubu and Bentley, McCarthy and Santa Cruz are certainly of European class and will be key to the hopes of their respective clubs.
Bolton, on the other hand, find themselves at the bottom of the Premiership table, struggling to replace Allardyce and Ben Haim and generally short of confidence, no matter what Kevin Nolan says about the strength of the dressing room. Whilst initially doing well in the UEFA cup, Bolton’s hopes soon came a cropper last season, due in my opinion to an overall lack of quality, something that I believe will happen again this campaign. Anelka and Diouf are not capable of carrying a team severely lacking in confidence and looking disorganised at the back, and only a managerial change will signal an upturn in hopes for the club.
Tottenham will consider themselves unlucky not to have beaten eventual champions Sevilla last season, especially after an awfully dubious penalty was awarded to the Hispalenses on their home ground. The Tottenham squad exudes talent and has a large amount of European and domestic experience, whilst Berbatov is proven to be prolific in European competitions. However, the relative uncertainty surrounding the club and especially the future of manager Martin Jol could eventually work against their chances, a factor reinforced by the belief amongst a number of Tottenham fans that Jol is unable to manage with any efficacy in crunch situations.
Spanish clubs performed superbly in the UEFA Cup last season, with three of the semi-finalists coming from the Peninsula and the final being played out between Sevilla and Espanyol. This year sees Sevilla graduate to Europe’s premier competition, the Champions’ League, with the Spanish representatives being Atlético Madrid, Villareal, Zaragoza and Getafe. Whilst the first three can be expected to progress fairly far in the competion — in particular, I would expect the class and experience of Villareal and Zaragoza, with the talents of such players as Nihat, Riquelme, Rossi, Pires and Mavuba for the former and Aimar (unavailable for tonight’s first round tie against Aris Salonika), D’Alessandro, Milito, Ayala, Oliveira and Matuzalem for the latter, to project the two clubs at least as far as the quarter finals, though it is worth noting that Villareal specifically have a fairly weak rear guard.
Other clubs hoping to make a splash in this year’s competition will be AZ, Anderlecht, Bayern Munich, Fiorentina, Galatasaray, Hamburg, Leverkusen and Palermo, and I would be extraordinarily surprised if at least two of the German clubs as well as Fiorentina did not progress to the quarter finals (depending, of course, on the draw). I mark Bayern Munich as the early favourites due to the sheer amount of quality and experience in the squad.
All predictions for the tournament and the first round ties are welcome.