Classic11 Football Blog

The floods of tears visibly streaming from Gianluigi Buffon after Italy’s goalless draw with Sweden were not the tears to herald the closing of a momentous career with his national team.

They were a demonstration of the sheer desolation and grief that will haunt his nation after a 1-0 aggregate play-off loss to Sweden confirmed Italy’s first World Cup qualification failure since 1958; resulting in the swift, anticipated sacking of manager Gian Piero Ventura.

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All that remains for the proud nation, who were crowned the World Champions barely eleven years ago, is to stew over where it all went wrong and to contemplate a fresh era under a new manager.

Many of the issues on the pitch prevalent throughout the qualifying campaign were encapsulated in last Monday’s final encounter against a tough disciplined Sweden at the San Siro.

They had dominated their Scandinavian opponents for the majority of the high-stakes tie, but simply lacked the quality and subtlety in the final third; an outgoing problem for Gian Piero Ventura’s side who had scored just three goals in their last six competitive fixtures. Endless crosses into a packed penalty area, despite a clear height inferiority to Sweden, was symbolic of the lack of a coherent plan to gain the crucial leveller needed.

Equally concerning scenes were playing out midway through the second half on the bench where the polarisation between coaching staff and players was exposed. Daniele De Rossi was reacting angrily to being asked to warm up by one of Ventura’s coaches, gesticulating towards Lorenzo Insigne in the process, appearing to reply, “Why should I go on? We don’t need a draw, we need a win”. Insigne, who was sitting two places along from De Rossi, looking perplexed at the situation, is currently one of the most sought after wide forwards in Europe, having scored 18 league goals for Napoli last season.

Not only did this incident encapsulate the unhealthy dressing room atmosphere, but it was emblematic of rigid tactics and a lack of flexibility. Italy playing in a 3-5-2 formation, meant there was simply no space for a wide forward.

The 3-5-2 formation was a familiar line-up for the majority of these players, having been used to great effect by Antonio Conte throughout Euro 2016. But this is a side who are bereft of their confidence and identity that they possessed in abundance from two summers ago. They have been drained of the dynamism and shape-shifting synergy they oozed under the now Chelsea manager. Ventura’s Italy lost their fluidity with a desperate disconnect between defence, midfield and attack.

The 69-year old tried to accommodate other formations but all decisions proved poor errors of judgement. 4-2-4 was used away to Spain, but was made to look decidedly naïve by an

imperious Spanish side who thrashed Italy 3-0 in Madrid. Even a 3-4-3 line-up could only yield a 1-1 draw in a frustrating encounter with Macedonia in Turin.

What many sectors of Italian media find unforgiveable, is that Ventura had more to work with than Antonio Conte before him.

Despite strikers Ciro Immobile and Andrea Belotti being in scintillating form for their respective clubs in the Serie A over the last 18 months; the pair have been stale and have appeared lost under Ventura. Jorginho, one of the primary key assets to current Serie A-leading Napoli, was only handed his competitive international debut on Monday night.

Questions will go back to the integrity and sense behind Ventura’s appointment in the first place.

Despite his age, Ventura held a fairly modest CV. Arguably, the biggest club he has ever coached was Torino, who he took to the last round of 16 in the Europa League in 2016. Appointed on a substantially lower salary than managerial predecessors, this is also a disastrous qualification failure that will be subject to much criticism labelled towards the Italian F.A.

A new manager will be at the helm for the Euro 2020 qualification campaign, and their first major task will be to accommodate a new era for Italian international football; to identify the long-term replacements for the seasoned 2006 World Cup medallists who will no longer be donning the Azzurri shirt. However, this is undoubtedly a national failure of seismic proportions that will painfully linger long in the memory and will not dissipate swiftly with time.

On a cold damp November Wednesday night, England failed to qualify for a major tournament for the first time since 1994.

Before the crucial game at Wembley against a Bilic inspired Croatia, England lost talisman Michael Owen in a friendly the previous Friday. Already without the suspended Rooney and injured John Terry and Rio Ferdinand, manager Steve McClaren decided to drop Ashley Cole and goal keeper Paul Robinson. Even England’s player of the 2006 World Cup Owen Hargreaves only made the bench.

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Over 88,000 turned up in hope. The team would consist of Scott Carson making his competitive debut and two other players in Micah Richards and Sol Campbell who would barely feature, not at all in Campbells case, for England.

A 4-1-4-1 formation seemed defensive against a Croatia team containing Modric and Kranjcar. Also, determined to make the Gerrard and Lampard axis work, Gareth Barry was deployed to anchor the midfield. Joe Cole and Wright-Phillips were picked to support Crouch.

Even this wasn’t to be McClaren’s biggest faux pas of the evening. Rain was falling onto Wembley and so he walked out with a cuppa in one hand and a brolly in the other. A headline was born.

2-0 down at half time and McClaren had to bite the bullet and bring on ex-captain David Beckham. Back in 2006 Sssshteve said he and England needed to move on from David, now he was being asked to rescue the three lions.

A Lampard pen and a Crouch header, assisted by Beckham, meant all England had to do was hold on and qualify for Austria and Switzerland.

Scott Carson, on loan at Aston Villa from Liverpool at the time, had already let slip Croatia’s first into the net. He came out for the second half and produced some good saves. Even a point blank one from a Olic header. On 77 minutes a 25 yards cross shot from Petric arrowed into the bottom corner. All hope seemed to evaporate.

England tried and tried but nothing came to fruition. And when the referee blew for full time Steve McCalren knew his time was up as England manager. Afterwards the press went for him. ‘The wally under the brolly’ was created.

Players accused of not caring and not reproducing club form. You could almost say nothing much has changed in the last 10 years.

What this night 2007 seemed to do was confirm something all England fans had refused to admit for a long time, we aren’t as good as we think. To this day I don’t really think we have recovered from this. For four years we stagnated under Capello and bored many under Uncle Roy. Crowds have dwindled and interest has waned to the point that I forget when games are on.

The ‘Golden Generation’ has now gone. Though it was a phrase that never sat comfortable with me. And yes, we have players like Harry Kane, John Stones, Dele Alli and Marcus Rashford coming through. But without the fans and without something entertaining to put in front of paying fans, we will never have a feeling of hope again.

One suggestion is to take the home games back around the country. St James’ Park, Old Trafford, Villa Park and as far south as the St Mary’s Stadium. But with Wembley still to be paid for I doubt this will happen.

More connection in a positive manner between players and fans need to be looked at. They seem all to robotic and hidden under Beats and hoodies. A Rashford should provide hope to all academy players that when an opportunity comes and you take it, you can go far. Even Harry Kane, who went out on loan countless times, is something to look at.

I miss looking forward to England games. We need less middle fingers and Wally’s under brolly’s, and to heaf back from Russia with love.

 

by Ross Jacobs - @riddley82

The World Cup 2018 qualifying campaign has been a turbulent one for Argentina. A year after losing the Copa America and Lionel Messi briefly announcing his international retirement, the Albiceleste sit outside the automatic qualification spots in 5th place, having made two significant managerial changes that has made for a wholly unstable influence on the team’s performances in the past year.

 

Edgardo Bauza, the former Sao Paulo and San Lorenzo manager who had been brought into to replace Gerado Martino in August 2016; was sacked after just 8 games into the campaign (3 wins, 2 draws & 3 losses) on the 11th April 2017.

Bauza was swiftly replaced by the much-adorned former Chile and Sevilla manager Jorge Sampaoli. His first two qualifiers in the recent September international break have produced two frustrating draws; a 0-0 stalemate away in Uruguay and a 1-1 draw with Venezuela at River Plate’s El Monumental stadium. Both encounters illustrated a rather sterile looking Argentine attack (as incredible as that may be in a forward-line that boasts the likes of Lionel Messi, Mauro Icardi and Paulo Dybala), that has resulted in the national media very much debating the centre-forward selection for the upcoming crucial fixtures.

Mauro Icardi of Inter Milan has thus far been Sampaoli’s chosen one since his appointment, but is yet to score in any of his 3 caps.

Many pundits and fans from the capital city are calling for introduction of another forward who has recently been awarded his first international call-up; Dario Benedetto of Boca Juniors. 26 goals in 29 games since his move to Boca Juniors in the summer of 2016, Benedetto was rated as the “MVP” that lead Boca to their 32nd national title last campaign. Furthermore, the fact that Argentina’s next tie is a home game against 4th placed Peru and is to be played at “La Bombonera”, the stadium of Boca Juniors, may well lead to convince Sampaoli that he will be worth the gamble.

The other option that Sampaoli has is to recall Sergio Aguero. An individual who (like Messi) has experienced the more unhappy moments of his career appearing for his country and has yet to score in the five appearances he made this in qualification campaign (3 being from the bench). Notably, he faced some stinging criticism from national media last October following his penalty miss in the 1-0 defeat to Paraguay in Cordoba.

However, Aguero is to this day, one of the top Premier League strikers and even by his standards, has enjoyed a wonderfully prolific start to the domestic campaign where he has forged an impressive partnership with the exciting Gabriel Jesus. It was only a saved penalty in Man City’s 2-0 win over Shakhtar Donestsk on Tuesday night that prevented him becoming their all-time top scorer.

His recent tournament performances have been somewhat mixed; having enjoyed a productive 2015 Copa America tournament (beaten in the final by Chile) but a poor 2014 World Cup tournament that ended goalless for him. Nonetheless, his goal record (34) for Argentina certainly cannot be ignored as he is only surpassed by Hernan Crespo, Gabriel Batistuta and Lionel Messi.

With the imperative need for three points from the fixture at “La Bombonera” against Peru on Thursday the 5th October, Aguero’s guile, potency and big-match experience may well make him the best candidate for the encounter; although Sampaoli could be risking a fan backlash and his managerial honeymoon period will almost be over if anything but a win transpires.

 by Hal Walker - @HalWalker

“At times he’s just unplayable. He’s turning into an extraordinary player”. These were the sentiments of Juventus boss Massimiliano Allegri on forward Paulo Dybala to the club’s official website after their 3-1 away win at Sassuolo on Sunday.

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He had just witnessed his prized asset mark his 100th game for the club with a hat-trick at the Mapei Stadium to ensure “The Old Lady’s” return to the top of Serie A; albeit for a matter of hours until Napoli thrashed Benevento 6-0 in the later Sunday fixture.

This was not even Dybala’s first hat-trick of the campaign; having picked up the match ball in the 4-2 away win at Genoa last month and he is now the first Juventus player to score in each of the first four Serie A games of the season (eight goals in total).

It only took until the 16th minute for the Argentinian to register his account in the game and earn his 50th goal in the Black and White, curling a beautiful first-time shot from 25 yards that gave Sassuolo goalkeeper Andrea Consigli no chance.

La Joya doubled their lead four minutes after the break with a delicate, low, toe-punted effort from the edge of a crowded penalty area before Dybala wrapped up his hat-trick and the three points for Allegri’s side just after the hour mark with an exquisite curling free-kick.

Having witnessed their team been torn apart by such a devastating display of talent for 85 minutes, it was significant that the majority of Sassuolo supporters at the Mapei rose in unison to applaud Dybala when his substitution came with five minutes remaining.

During the summer, many Juventus fans and quarters of the Italian press had anticipated a possible move from Barcelona for Dybala post Neymar’s departure to Paris Saint Germain.

Although a formal bid was never forthcoming, the Juventus hierarchy took the correct steps to show their faith in their Argentine playmaker. A new deal was presented to make him the highest paid player at the club and he was handed the No.10 shirt; formerly donned by the club and country national treasure, Alessandro Del Piero.

“I hope he goes on to do better,” remarked Del Piero.

Dybala’s own personal priority must be to take this imperious form into the big occasions.

Critics of the 24-year old have been intent to point out that younger stars like Kylian Mbappe (18) and Marco Asensio (21) have shown more composure and courage than Juve’s star man who came in for some notable criticism for a somewhat anonymous second-half display in the Champions League Final defeat to Real Madrid in June.

Granted, “La Joya” was also outshone by his Argentine counterpart Lionel Messi in Barcelona’s recent 3-0 thrashing of Juventus in the Champions League at the Camp Nou. But

Dybala is the first to admit he is not the next Messi: “Messi has his story; I have mine. We’re two different players.”

But this is a young man still maturing. He may not have been the teenage prodigal footballing genius that Messi was, but he is a supremely talented playmaker that is garnering a clinical scoring record.

It was his decisive penalty miss in the Italian Suppercoppa last year that paved the way for the “mask”- the celebration that we have seen so many times since that is a reference to “Gladiator;” one of his favourite films. “In life you have to get up and fight,” he maintains.

With this resolute attitude, we will no doubt be seeing plenty more of these exuberant celebrations and important goal-scoring milestones.

 by @HalWalker

The smell of rubbish gossip. The sensationalism in Jim White’s voice as Leeds sign an Arsenal U23 on loan for the season. Ah it must be nearly Transfer deadline day.

The hope at 7am, the bi-polar midday feeling to the panicky 8pm to 11 pm period. We go through many emotions and all have one we remember. Sadly for me it’s Berbatov to United and Frazier Campbell in return.

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I’ve decided to lift the lid on transfers. Many chairmen and agents have tried to stop me revealing this. But I’m hyped up on Pepsi Max (other soft drinks are available but it was on offer) and don’t care.

 

Social Stalking

Firstly identify the player of course, but more importantly in this age of never looking up from a 4 to 7-inch screen, social media is king. Instagram is a good place. A like on a pic could get lost in thousands but the eagle-eyed footballer will pick this up. Or the guy who is paid to check for him. If this is noted you’re in.

 

Adapt the Home Kit

You want to sign Neymar? Ease the situation by making your own home kit not dissimilar to the one he has just left. Simple really, surprised Man City didn’t adopt the same practice.

 

Buy players from the same country

Remember this when a guy from Bolivia who can only say ‘Yes’ ‘No’ or ‘Champions League Release Clause’. Buying a few of his mates will help most communication. Or they will lead him stray and he ends up in bed with one of the cast of TOWIE.

 

Buying out the Buyout clause

I’ve managed to get hold of the transcript of the phone call between Oryx Qatar Sports Investments Head Nasser Al-Khelaifi and manager Unai Emery.

QSI – We are buying Neymar for €222mill

Unai – Really? For that I could get new defender like Toby Alderweireld and Midfielder like Isco and Forward like Sanchez…

QSi – We buy Neymar.

Unai – We need more than one player. Silva is getting old and we have only one striker.

QSi – We buy Neymar and sell lots of shirts for €140.00 each.

Unai – That’s a bit expensive, we will turn the working man or woman against this club.

QSI – Maybe we buy Wenger too….

Unai – Oh NEYMAR, I thought you said Bale.

 

Pretend to not Care

If none of these are working, there is always the old school yard trick of pretending not to care. Like many girls who turned me down (yes mum it happened) I just said, ‘Don’t care, didn’t really like her anyway’ in the stupid hope she would change her mind and French kiss me there and then.

Barcelona could do worse than to use this tactic with Liverpool. Or just offer a load more money.

 

Beg

As a Spurs fan I love Harry Redknapp and what he did for our club. But I sometimes feel he had to beg either Chairmen or the players themselves to come. VDV, as we called him at the lane, probably didn’t come without ‘Arry falling to his knees saying, ‘Bale can’t do it all himself’.

 

Promises and Clauses

You have the player and agent in front of you and it is now time to negotiate. This can range from offering to buy his home village a goat to some ridiculous buy-out clause, say €222mill, which surely no club can afford….

Clauses though can range from ‘If we don’t get Champions League football I’m off’ to ‘if I don’t touch the ball 15 times a game on my right foot inside the penalty box of the opposition I’m off.’ Why clubs agree to these is beyond me.

 

Cheesy video

Nope not a Rio, Frank, Dyer and one other person caught in ‘the act’ type video. But those annoying ‘oh look we have signed and look how are introducing him’. I don’t seem to remember Ant and Dec ‘Wrekin’ da Mic’ to announce Alan Shearer. Nor a mock up video of Sir Alan Sugar sending an email to Jurgen Klinsmann asking him to join Spurs (this obviously done on a dial up internet).

So when August 31st comes round and Jim White’s Red Bull has been drunk remember all the things your club goes through to get that Albanian right back.

After the enormous success of my previous blog, (an actual player from Gent in Belgium liked it) I decided to flip the coin and consider the players who never hit the high notes on the international stage.

Trawling through the history books (wiki) I saw many one cap wonders. Even a gentleman by the name of Serger Bastard once played for England.

Silly names aside, your Nugent’s, Jeffers’ and Ricketts’ can rest easy. Even SWP misses out (again)

 

Richard Wright

When at Ipswich, the world and the ball seemed to be in safe hands. A move to Arsenal seemed to make great sense too. Back-up to the long haired but legendary David Seaman meant he would learn and become similar.

Injuries and Seaman lasting longer than his hair meant Richard was limited to few appearances under Wenger. This is where the problem lies for me. He should have moved to a lower club and built up again but he chose Everton and again found himself on the bench behind Howard. He seemed to be ok with this from the outside. What really got my goat, if I had one that is, was his move to Man City. Picking up a decent cheque every week to do… well not much at all. Joe Hart came through and Wright barely even warmed the bench.

 

Micah Richards

When he broke through at Man City, before they had money and Augeroooooooo, Micah was the Maine man (the puns will stop now.) He and Joey Barton seemed destined to break into the England team along with Shaun Wright Phillips. Alas his career just drifted again. He lost his place to Lescott and never seemed to have a fight about him to reclaim his spot. Another who made odd career choices, firstly by going to Fiorentina on loan which was confusing. Then on to a more or less already doomed Villa side, playing only 26 times in three seasons. A knee injury has kept him quiet but the curse of City’s billions strikes again.

 

Wayne Bridge

John Terry handshakes aside, I decided to take the emotion out of this choice. At Southampton, he broke through and another should have chosen wisely on his next move. Sadly, in my opinion, he went for the money teams. Chelsea had just been brought by Roman Abramovich and was spending like my wife with a fresh credit card in her hands. Joe Cole, Veron, SWP, Mutu, Gallas and others came in as did a young Wayne. I always question a player’s desire when he moves to a newly rich club. Also, it seemed Chelsea just wanted to keep their England quota up. After one season of doing very little wrong, the special one turned up and tapped up Ashley Cole. This must have sent a message to poor Wayne that he wasn’t going to be first pick. But he just seemed to carry on warming benches. That is until Man City had a slight injection of cash. Robhino, Bellamy, Kompany joined, as did Wayne. Not learning from his Chelsea years, he seemed to be in it for the money. Yes, he was unlucky with Cole being so good but I think some better choices should have been made.

 

Kieron Dyer

Ipswich and Man City seem to be getting a kicking on this. Anyway, another young player at Ipswich but this time the right move was made. Joining Sir Bobby Robson at Newcastle seemed a place to learn for young Keiron. He played in variety of positions but never seemed to settle, even playing up front at some points. This after earning his first England cap at right wing back. This could be a factor in him not fulfilling his potential, also injuries didn’t help. But I got the feeling with Dyer he stopped caring very early on. Fighting with Lee Bowyer was funny and sad at the same time.

Breaking his leg just after joining West Ham summed up the lad’s luck. But again, he seemed not to care, and earning over £60k a week would have helped.

 

Fabian Delph

I promise I have nothing against Man City. But there does seem to be a pattern. Young Delph was a wonder at Leeds and had a pick of a few EPL teams. He plumped for Villa. But injuries pegged him back. Oddly he was barely

played then one season he blossomed. Even England came asking for him. For some reason, this made everything turn sour. City came in and he said yes, then no, then yes. Hindsight will tell him that the ‘no’ should have stayed. Barely in the City and I doubt a name Pep would have thought about when coming into the club. Money talks yes, but it doesn’t guarantee first team football.

 

Jack Wilshere

Another injury prone one. But deciding to go to Bournemouth smacked of ‘I can’t handle Italy, they all talk Italian’. Saying that Howe did get him over 20 games last season. Now back at Arsenal I’m not sure he knows what his best position is. He isn’t strong enough for a holding midfielder, nor quick enough to get behind defences to be a Dele Alli type attacking midfielder. Not realising earlier that Arsenal and Arsene may not fancy him could cost him a good career. His next move will be his most important.

 

David Bentley

Funky hair and comparisons to another David meant Mr Bentley should have enjoyed a decent career. A wonder goal for Arsenal against Norwich and a Hat-trick vs Man United for Blackburn showed his skills. But a move to Spurs seemed to suck the fun out of football for him. Even pouring water over Harry Redknapp seemed to get him more trouble than glory. Bentley is another with a strange move, this time to Russian club Rostov.

He retired at 29 saying football had become ‘robotic’ and ‘predictable and a bit too calculated’.

 

Theo Walcott

I swear he has spent the last 10 years complaining he isn’t being played as a striker. Never showed much for England but I swear he could tell you about his 3 against Croatia in great detail.

Always thought he wasn’t that good, pace yes but sometimes couldn’t hit a cow’s arse with a banjo. Starting to become a figure of fun. Even my wife, an Arsenal fan, says ‘I don’t think he is as good as he thinks he is, and wouldn’t be upset if he went’

 

Stan Collymore

Where to start with this lad. Allegedly punching his missus Ulrika Johnson, dogging in a car park and being sacked from club after club. All the talent in the world. His partnership with Bryan Roy at Forest was devastating. A move to Liverpool and a dream partnership with Robbie Fowler seemed a sure success. Yet, bar a winner vs Newcastle in the last minute to kill off Newcastle’s title chances (sorry Dave), he barely did much else. Should have been a 25 goal a season striker. Yet he never hit that target.

 

Many others could have been put up, please let me know who you would have had.

 

by Ross Jacobs - @riddley82

 by Hal Walker - @HalWalker

To some it is the start to a lengthy journey to the best chance many clubs will have of earning a place in the prestigious UEFA Champions League. To others, it is purely the opportunity to taste a sense of European Cup glory; this is the last round of ties to enter the Europa League.

A total of 29 winners from the third qualifying round and 15 losers from the Champions League third qualifying round will battle it out in a two-legged affair to earn a place in the Europa League Group Stage.

Whilst admittedly it may be a competition to split the neutrals interest, the intriguing nature of this stage of the competition is the matching of some of the continents recently risen minnows with a host of Europe’s so-called “fallen giants”, those clubs who boast a renowned history with an esteemed collection of honours to their clubs’ trophy room (notably AC Milan & Ajax).

The following is a brief preview rundown of each tie; summarising the key facts behind the clashes:

1- FC Utrecht (Netherlands) vs Zenit Saint Petersburg (Russia)

Utrecht are bidding to qualify for the Europa League group stage for the first time since the 2010/11 campaign and will have to be on top form to have any chance of overcoming Roberto Mancini’s Zenit who won the competition in 2008 (known at the time as the “Uefa Cup”) and currently sit at the top of the Russian Premier League.

2- AC Milan (Italy) vs Shkendija (Macedonia)

The only common theme to find between these two clubs is their red and black kit colours. Having completed a host of signings in this summer transfer window, Milan are looking to return to former glories (7 European Cup/Champions League titles). Shkendija, on the other hand have never made it beyond the Europa second qualifying round until this year and are looking to make history by reaching the competition by eliminating one of the giants of the tournament.

3- Ajax (Netherlands) vs Rosenborg (Norway)

Last year’s beaten finalists, Ajax are one of the most successful European clubs having won the European Cup/Champions League 4 times. Rosenborg have never got closer to European glory than when they were knocked out of the Champions League quarter-final in 1996/1997.

4- Altach (Austria) vs Maccabi Tel-Aviv (Israel)

SC Rheindorf Altach finished 4th in the Austrian league last season and are playing in only their second ever Europa League qualifying campaign, having eliminated Chikura Sachkhere, Dinamo Brest and Gent in the three qualifying rounds in the past month. Maccabi Tel-Aviv’s tournament best was qualifying for the round of 32 in the 2013/14 season.

5- Apollon Limassol (Cyprus) vs Midtylland (Denmark)

The Danish side will go into this tie seeking revenge for their elimination by Limassol in the 2015/16 Champions League third qualifying round.

6- Bate Borisov (Belarus) vs Olexandriya (Ukraine)

The reigning champions of Belarus will be looking to secure qualification to have a chance of beating their current Europa League tournament best which they achieved in 2011 when they were knocked out of the round of 32 by Paris Saint-Germain. Contrastingly, FC Olexandriya are seeking group stage qualification for the first time in their history.

7- Club Brugge (Belgium) vs AEK Athens (Greece)

The runners-up in the Belgian Pro league last season reached the quarter finals of this tournament in 2015 and were beaten in the final back in 1976 by Liverpool. AEK have enjoyed any of their own success with their best efforts in this competition going back to 1977 when they were eliminated by Juventus.

8- Dinamo Zagreb (Croatia) vs Skenderbeu (Albania)

Dinamo have made a record 101 appearances in UEFA qualifying competitions and last played Skenderbeu in their 6-2 aggregate victory over their Albanian counterparts in the 2015/16 UEFA Champions League play-offs.

9- FC Domzale (Slovenia) vs Marseille (France)

Domzale are competing in the Europa qualifying rounds for the fifth consecutive season and are seeking group stage qualification for the first time. A tough tie awaits them against Rudi Garcia’s side whose 2004 UEFA cup final defeat is the closest the French side have been to claiming the trophy.

10- Everton (England) vs Hadjuk Split (Croatia)

After a strong summer of investment, Everton will be confident about qualifying for the tournament for the first time in three years. Despite having competed in the qualifying stages of every season, Hadjuk Split have not reached the group stages since 2010/11.

11- FH Hafnarfjordur (Iceland) vs Braga (Portugal)

FH are looking to become the first Icelandic side to reach a major UEFA group stage and face Braga who have never come closer to winning the tournament than their 1-0 Cup Final defeat to Porto at the Aviva Stadium in 2011.

12- FC Krasnodar (Russia) vs Crvena Zvezda (Serbia)

The Russian side reached the last round of 16 last season (their all-time tournament best), where they were eliminated by Celta Vigo 4-1 on aggregate. Crvena Zvezda who are also known more traditionally as Red Star Belgrade, notably won this tournament in 1991 when they beat Marseille on penalties to lift the trophy.

13- Legia Warsaw (Poland) vs FC Sheriff Tiraspol (Moldova)

Legia were the runners-up in the 2016/17 Ekstraklasa campaign and were beaten in the last round of 32 by Ajax last season. Moldovan side Sheriff have never progressed beyond the Europa group stages.

14- Ludogorets (Bulgaria) vs Suduva FC (Lithuania)

The Bulgarian league champions eliminated another Lithuanian side Zalgaris in an earlier Champions League qualifier this summer. Suduva have battled through three qualifying rounds to reach this tie and are as of yet to ever achieve group stage qualification in this tournament.

15- Maritimo (Portugal) vs Dynamo Kyiv (Ukraine)

Dynamo make the marathon 4,300km journey to Funchal in seek of Europa Group stage football for the

first time since 2014. Maritimo are competing in this tournament for the first time since the 2012/13 season after finishing 6th in the Primeria Liga last season and beat Bulgarian side Botev Plovdiv in the last qualifying round.

16- NK Osijek (Croatia) vs Austria Wien (Austria)

The Croatian side are bidding to qualify for the group stage debut, competing at the qualifying stage for the first time since 2012. En route to this tie, Osijek have not conceded a goal. Austria Wien are looking to qualify for the group stages for the first time since the 2013/14 campaign.

17- Panathinaikos (Greece) vs Athletic Bilbao (Spain)

Panathinaikos finished 3rd in the Greek Superleague last year and were eliminated from the Group stage of the competition. 2012 Finalists Bilbao reached the last round of 32 last season, only to be knocked out by Apoel Nicosia (4-3 on aggregate).

18- PAOK (Greece) vs Ostersunds FK (Sweden)

PAOK have consecutively featured in the last four Europa League group stages and face the conquerors of Galatasaray from the second qualifying round, Ostersunds FK; who are enjoying their maiden European campaign, having only climbed from the third tier of Swedish football in 2013.

19- FK Partizan (Serbia) vs Videoton FC (Hungary)

Partizan have not reached beyond the last round of 16 in this competition where they were last eliminated in 2004/05 by CSKA Moscow. Videoton last qualified for the group stages in 2012/13 and were beaten in the third qualifying round last season by FC Midtjylland. These two sides last met in the 1984/85 UEFA Cup third round where Partizan lost 5-0 in Hungary.

20- FC Viktoria Plzen (Czech Republic) vs AEK Larnaca (Cyprus)

Viktoria Plzen’s best Europa performance came in 2013/14 season when they were knocked out of the last round of 16 by Lyon. They face the Cypriat outfit AEK Larnaca who have only qualified for the group stage once in the 2011/12 campaign.

21- FK Vardar (Macedonia) vs Fenerbahce (Turkey)

This tie is Vardar’s first Europa fixture since their qualifying round 1 exit to Anorthosis Famagusta in 2007/08 and will be playing a Fenerbahce side who are under pressure from their own national press to step up after a poor domestic campaign last year. In the Europa competition, the Istanbul-based side were eliminated by Krasnodar in the last round of 32.

22- FC Viitorul Constanta (Romania) vs Red Bull Salzburg (Austria)

Viitorul were crowned Romanian champions last year and are notably owned by national footballing icon Gheorghe Hagi. They face Salzburg who have had to beat Hibernians and Croatian champions Rijeka to reach this final qualifying play off.

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