UEFA Europa League – Who Should You Back Tonight?

2016/17 was a watershed season for the UEFA Europa League, with Manchester United subjugating their closing matches in the Premier League in order to lift the trophy and qualify for the Champions League giving a whole new perspective to a competition that is going from strength-to-strength.

Many of the clubs in the 48-team line-up may be new names to you, so here, The Stats Zone gives you an insight into your Thursday night viewing.

There are 29 nations represented in the group stage this year, which is seven more than last season. The diversity of the qualified clubs is a nice antidote to the familiarity of the Champions League, but means that the casual punter can make hay with a little knowledge of the lesser-known sides on show.

Since the UEFA Cup was rebranded and the current format settled upon in 2009/10, most clubs have managed to win at least one match in the group stage. Last season, on-field success was enjoyed by 44 out of 48, which had only been achieved once before (2012/13).

So, where are the nuggets of information that can help us pick the matches to focus on this week?

FK Vardar v FC Zenit

This Group L encounter will create history as the first ever group stage match in any UEFA competition to feature a club from FYR Macedonia. It comes as the latest boost in a phenomenal year for football in the country, showing the progress of their infrastructure by appearing in a final round of the Under-21 Championships and hosting the UEFA Super Cup between Real Madrid and Manchester United.

Vardar – with three successive titles behind them – eliminated Fenerbahce on the way to the group stage, but being ranked 266 by UEFA on the continental club scene and taking on number 19 in the same list here is fraught with problems, making Zenit the pick of the odds-on shots this Thursday.

Zenit lifted the UEFA Cup in 2008 and European prominence is high on the list of club objectives. Their win percentage ratio in this competition (including the UEFA Cup years) is 52.75%, and when you add that to the fact that Macedonian clubs have only once prevailed over Russian adversaries in Europe, then the case for the Russian Premier League leaders becomes ever stronger.

FC Zlín v FC Sheriff

This is the fourth outing in a UEFA Europa League group stage for FC Sheriff, but they have never qualified for the knockout rounds and face a significant obstacle in the form of FC Zlín, the Czech Cup holders.

Sheriff won the Moldovan league title only on penalties against capital club Dacia and although that was their 15th championship in 17 seasons, the Tiraspol-based outfit have not won in seven European away matches and never beaten a Czech side either. The new kids on the block may have the run of the place when these two come together in Olomouc.

Rijeka v AEK Athens

After beating Salzburg, Rijeka missed out on a UEFA Champions League place to Greek opposition in the form of Olympiacos. AEK Athens is a considerable drop down in class for the Croatian champions and AEK have not scored in their last three matches on the road in UEFA competitions.

Coached by the former Slovenia boss Matjaž Kek, Rijeka are without a win in four European matches and although AEK Athens sit at the head of the Greek standings, their two victories domestically have come at headquarters, where they went four decades without a European defeat, but their away form is a different story. Furthermore, AEK’s co-efficient ranking is 208, immediately below Motherwell and FC Utrecht, which could make Rijeka decent value in this tie.