The UEFA Europa League is the poor relative of the UEFA Champions League. None of the bigger teams in the competition truly want to be there. They’re involved in the tournament either because they underperformed in their domestic leagues and missed out on Champions League qualification or because they were eliminated from the Champions League at an early stage and dropped into the Europa League as a consolation prize. Competing in the contest is a huge deal to the smaller teams, for whom Champions League qualification is a distant dream, but it’s probably fair to describe the tournament as “lightly regarded” by Europe’s elite.
Even with that in mind, we’re currently at the stage of the contest where things get exciting. We’re halfway through the quarter-final stages, and so we’re nearing the point where a winner will be crowned. That winner doesn’t only get the joy of taking home a trophy. They also automatically qualify for the Champions League next season, which will be the ultimate aim of several of the teams that are still in the mix.
Even with only eight teams left, predicting a winner isn’t easy. We feel a little bit like we’ve just put money into the “Football: Champions Cup” online slots game at Irish Rose Slots, and we’re waiting for the reels to stop spinning. We know there’s some great football content and potentially fantastic winning combinations to be made – we just can’t quite make them yet. That’s perhaps more true of online slots than real-life fixtures because of the random nature of online slots, but it still doesn’t help us! Still, with a little applied knowledge, we’d like to think that we have more chance of identifying a winner than an online slots player does of chancing upon a jackpot, so let’s give it a try.
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Manchester United vs Granada
This looked like a mismatch on paper when the tie was drawn and looks like even more of a mismatch now the first leg has been played. Manchester United won 2-0 away from home thanks to a well-taken goal from Marcus Rashford and a late penalty from Bruno Fernandes. The chances of Granada overturning that result in Manchester are low, so it’s reasonably safe to assume that Manchester United will be in the semi-finals. The question is whether they’ll get any further than that. They’ve lost in the semi-finals of three different cup competitions within the past twelve months (including last season’s Europa League) and have a perceived mental weakness when it comes to taking the additional step required to reach the final. Manager Ole Gunnar Solskjaer will be keen to prove the doubters wrong by going all the way this time.
Roma vs Ajax
Winning the Europa League is a high priority for Italian side Roma this season, as they have no other route into next season’s Champions League. They’re seventh in Serie A at the time of writing, which even puts them outside the qualifying positions for next season’s Europa League. Nevertheless, they have the chance of a successful season by winning the Europa League and a 2-1 lead from the away leg to take into their second-leg tie with Ajax. By contrast, Ajax already has the Dutch championship sewn up in real terms and will be in the Champions League next season, whatever happens. Roma has the advantage and should want the win more, so we expect to see them go through.
Slavia Prague vs Arsenal
Slavia Prague is the sort of team that Arsenal would have made mincemeat out of ten years ago under Arsene Wenger. Unfortunately for Gunners fans, those days are long gone, and Mikel Arteta is no Arsene Wenger. The Spanish coach is currently threatening to clear out Arsenal’s underperforming players over the summer but may find himself cleared out by the club’s board before he gets the chance. His team is 10th in the Premier League table with no realistic prospect of qualifying for Europe via the league and now heads into the away leg with the Czech side with only a 1-1 draw to show for the first leg in London. Nothing seems to be going right for Arsenal at the moment, and winning the Europa League would be a huge achievement for Slavia Prague. That being said, Arsenal should still have the quality to see them off. If they don’t, Arteta’s days are surely numbered.
Villarreal vs Dinamo Zagreb
Zagreb is a difficult place for any team to go and play regardless of stature, but Villarreal managed to escape from Croatia with a 1-0 win. They now go into the return leg with supreme confidence. They’re currently within the Europa League qualifying positions in La Liga but are too far back from the Champions League qualifying positions to get any further. That means they have to win this tournament if they want to be involved in the world’s most prestigious club football competition next season. They’ll give it everything they have, and Dinamo Zagreb probably won’t be able to do much to stop them.
When these ties are over, the teams we ought to be left with are Manchester United, Roma, Arsenal, and Villarreal. Even though they can be inconsistent in cup competitions, Manchester United would be the obvious choice to win. They have a better squad than the other three teams, and they have individual players of greater quality. They’re also in better form. United are currently second in the English Premier League, which is a higher league position than any of the other three sides. It would be disappointed for United fans if the team didn’t go on to win the tournament from here, but then again, disappointment is something that Manchester United fans have become accustomed to in recent years.
The biggest shock would be for Slavia Prague to lift the trophy. We’ve been generous to Arsenal in suggesting that they might win the away leg in Czechia, so we wouldn’t be stunned if Slavia held on to reach the semi-finals. From there, they’d have to beat a team that’s considerably out of their league unless Dinamo Zagreb somehow overcame Villarreal in their away leg. It would be a great story for the team, but we can’t see it happening.
Our prediction for the winners of the 2021 UEFA Europa League is, therefore, Manchester United. Feel free to come back and ridicule us a few weeks from now if we’ve got it wrong!