As a new year begins and European football goes into hibernation for the winter break, join me for an overview of the 2016-17 Europa League so far.
1st & 2nd Qualifying Rounds
Skenderbeu’s Match Fixing
The First Qualifying Round was contested by a mammoth 96 teams. 48 teams were planned to advance yet in the end it was 49. The reason for this was the cancellation of the game between Partizani Tirana and Slovan Bratislava. The two played out a 0-0 draw in the first leg and it was revealed prior to the second leg that Partizani’s Albanian Superliga rivals Skenderbeu – who had won the Superliga in the 2015-16 season – had been banned from European competition for a sole season due to match fixing. UEFA’s suspicion was cast over some Superliga matches from the previous season and results in Europe. Therefore Partizani were put all the way through to the play-off stage of the Europa League taking Skenderbeu’s place which was earned for triumphing in the Superliga, Bratislava being awarded a by to the 2nd Qualifying Round. Despite the allegations Skenderbeu have been allowed to keep their 15-16 Superliga title.
1st Round Highlights
The unfortunate accolade of highest profile casualty of the 1st Round fell to the Kazakh team of Aktobe. With a 8.075 ranking in the UEFA Coefficient the side faced off against MTK Budapest conceding an away goal in a 1-1 home leg before a 601 strong crowd witnessed the side suffer an unlikely 2-0 loss in Budapest. Brondby of Denmark picked up the highest aggregate victory, winning 10-1 to fellow Nordic side Valur of Iceland. Brondby also shared the record of highest single game victory (6-0) with KR from Iceland who beat Northern Irish side Glenavon by the same margin.
2nd Round Shocks
In the second qualifying round the highest profile knocking-out was one which would perhaps be a more recognisable one as 2 time Champions League group stage participants Partizan Belgrade were knocked out in an attritional tie with Polish side Zaglebie Lubin. The team, who came a disappointing second in their domestic league in 2015-16 were dumped out of the competition in a penalty shoot-out after both the home and away ties ended in 0-0 draws. Genk nearly fell to a shock defeat only beating Montenegrin Buducnost Podgorica on penalties.
2nd Round Best Tie – Grasshopper 5-4 KR
Within the bracket of exciting ties the game between the aforementioned KR & Swiss side Grasshopper must be placed. The home leg in Iceland played out as a 3-3 draw. Grasshopper raced into a 2-0 half-time lead through Munsy’s half-volley and Gjorgjev’s close range side-foot. KR were level 5 minutes into the second half through a brace by Morten Beck Andersen. The Danish forward scored his first with a low finish after dispossessing Grasshopper deep into their own area. His second came on the half-volley after running onto a chipped through ball. Caio put the Swiss side back in front by latching onto a deflection before Hauksson scored the final goal of the first leg from the penalty spot after Morten Beck (not to be confused with attacker Morten Beck Andersen) was brought crashing down.
Both sides went into the second leg with everything to play for. In the 45th minute on the stroke of half-time Grasshopper took the lead. Sigurjonsson’s burst through a gap in the KR defense before slotting home one-on-one. Just after half-time Morten Beck Andersen scored again. The Dane stabbed home from a few yards out after Vasic parried the ball into his path. Sigurjonsson put the tie to bed with a strike from the edge of the area.
That’s the end of part 1, part 2 should be out soon including the third qualifying round & play-off round.