As the giants found out who they would battle for the Champions League crown, the Europa League also held its draw yesterday. The Europa League provides expanded opportunities for smaller clubs in bigger leagues, or any club in a smaller league, to take down a giant while working towards a trophy. Many of the biggest names are distracted by league form, or simply don’t care about the Europa League. In addition, the travel to some of the less comfortable locations in Europe give smaller clubs an advantage in the competition.
The draw has some interesting match-ups; here are the best of the giant/minnow match-ups in the round of 32. See the entire draw here.
Manchester United v. St.-Etienne: One of England’s most successful clubs faces off against one of France’s most successful clubs. Les Verts (The Greens) sit 8th in the League 1 table currently. However they have a distinguished domestic history. They have won 10 League 1 titles and 12 domestic tournament trophies. However, much of this success was in the 1960s and 1970s. This year’s edition finished first in Group C which also featured Anderlecht (2nd place) and Mainz (3rd). The match-up could be a challenge for the Red Devils but the travel location will be quite nice.
Tottenham Hotspur v. Gent: Spurs also gets a nice away fixture in terms of location but must be wary of De Buffalos (which translates, yes, to The Buffalos). Gent won the Belgian top division as recently as two years ago and finished third last year. Gent barely finished second above SC Braga in Group H (and behind Shakhtar Donetsk) and drew the Champions League qualifiers as a reward. Also, do not confuse this club with Genk, who drew the slightly less challenging Astra from Romania.
Legia Warsaw v. Ajax: The legends of Europe draw a minnow who consistently competes in Europe. The Wojskowi won the Ekstraklasa last season to qualify for the Champions League but were bounced from a tough group. As the first Polish side to advance to the Champions League Group Stage in 20 years, the club is tough but their home field may be tougher. They made news for all the wrong reasons during the group stage when their Real Madrid home fixture had to be played behind “closed doors”. UEFA charged the club with a number of violations after fans allegedly used racial slurs to taunt Borussia Dortmund fans at a previous group stage match. Irrespective of this, this may be the best chance for a “smaller” club to knock out a bigger name.