The second edition of the UEFA Europa Conference League is about to begin.
In May, Roma became the integral winners of this competition, beating Feyenoord 1-0 in Tirana.
This season, all roads to lead to Prague which will host the final on 7 June.
The only previous UEFA club competition final to take place in the Czech capital is the 2013 UEFA Super Cup, in which Bayern Munich beat Chelsea on penalties.
Could Slavia Praha, who call Fortuna Arena home, be one of the two clubs taking to the field in that showpiece occasion?
140 matches will be played before then, so here’s a group by group preview ahead of the big kick off on 8 September.
Villarreal to win UEFA Europa Conference League!
Villarreal to be Europa Conference League winners 2023- 11/2!
Group A: İstanbul Başakşehir, Fiorentina, Heart of Midlothian & RFS
Fiorentina boast a rich European history, so will they recapture the glory days this season?
I Viola lifted the Cup Winners’ Cup in 1961 and have also reached the European Cup Final of 1957, Cup Winners’ Cup Final in 1962 and the UEFA Cup Final of 1990.
However, prior to beating FC Twente in the play-off round, Fiorentina hadn’t played a European match for five and a half years.
Nevertheless, under Vincenzo Italiano, the 2015 Europa League semi-finalists are amongst the favourites to go deep into this tournament.
İstanbul Başakşehir though are Group A’s top seeds.
The Grey Owls ousted Maccabi Netanya, Breiðablik and Royal Antwerp in qualifying, thereby reaching a fourth group phase in six seasons.
However, the Turkish club have only won six of 18 group games, most famously beating Manchester United in 2020.
These two are the overwhelming favourites to advance, but can either of the outsiders spring a surprise?
This is Heart of Midlothian’s first group phase appearance since 2004 and, having lost to Zürich in the Europa League play-offs, they’ve own just six of their last 25 European games, losing 12.
If the Jambos have any chance of reaching the knockout phase, they’ll need Tynecastle to be a fortress.
Lastly, RFS have become the first-ever Latvian club to reach a UEFA group stage.
The Virslīga champions overcame Hibernians and Linfield in qualification, the latter on penalties in simply astonishing circumstances.
It finished 3-3 on aggregate, with RFS scoring in the 88th and 95th minutes of the first leg, before saving themselves via an 121st minute own goal in Belfast.
So, Viktors Morozs’ team have done remarkably well to get here, but should struggle to compete in a tough section.
Prediction: 1st: Fiorentina. 2nd: İstanbul Başakşehir. 3rd: Heart of Midlothian. 4th: RFS.
Group B: West Ham United, FCSB, Anderlecht & Silkeborg
Will West Ham United enjoy another memorable European campaign?
Last season, the Hammers made their debut in a UEFA group stage, but got all the way to the Europa League semi-finals, ousting Sevilla and Lyon, before falling to Eintracht Frankfurt.
This was their best run on the continent since losing in the Cup Winners’ Cup Final of 1976, aiming for their first European silverware since lifting that trophy in 1965.
In August, David Moyes’ men swatted aside Viborg in the play-off round and should cruise to top spot in this section.
However, the fight for second place is set to be fascinating.
FCSB were European Champions as recently as 1986 but, these days, had to come through three qualifiers just to get into this competition.
Nicolae Dică's team did cruise past Saburtalo Tbilisi, DAC 1904 Dunajská Streda and Viking, so can they make the step up in difficulty level?
Are Anderlecht, who beat West Ham in the Cup Winners’ Cup Final 46 years ago, favourites for second?
The Purple and Whites needed a penalty shootout to beat BSC Young Boys in the play-offs, thereby reaching their first UEFA group stage since 2018.
Silkeborg meanwhile are making the group phase debut, returning to Europe for the first time since 2001.
The Danish Superligaen’s surprise package were ousted by HJK in the Europa League play-offs, suggesting they may struggle to compete at this level.
Prediction: 1st: West Ham United. 2nd: Anderlecht. 3rd: FCSB. 4th: Silkeborg.
Group C: Villarreal, Hapoel Be’er Sheva, Austria Wien & Lech Poznań
Given Villarreal’s recent European record, and that of their manager, they have to be amongst the favourites to win this competition.
El Submarino Amarillo won their first-ever major trophy in 2021, lifting the Europa League, before reaching the Champions League semi-finals last season.
Given that Unai Emery has now appeared in five Europa League Finals, winning four of them, only a brave person would back against him adding this trophy to his résumé.
In terms of this group, while Villarreal are massive favourites to finish top, the other three clubs are well-matched.
Hapoel Be’er Sheva have reached a fourth UEFA group stage, all since 2016, by ousting Dinamo Minsk, Lugano and Universitatea Craiova in qualification.
The Camels are unbeaten in seven European home games, losing just two of the last 19, so their home form will be key.
Austria Wien meantime are featuring in a first group phase for five years, but are winless in eight continental games, losing six of them.
This includes a 6-1 drubbing by Fenerbahçe in the Europa League play-off round.
So, could Lech Poznań get into the knockout phase for the first time since 2010/11?
The Ekstraklasa champions overcame Dinamo Batumi, Knattspyrnufélagið Víkingur and Dudelange in qualifiers and, having finished bottom of their last UEFA group, will be looking to improve on that.
In short, second place is very much up for grabs.
Prediction: 1st: Villarreal. 2nd: Hapoel Be’er Sheva. 3rd: Lech Poznań. 4th: Austria Wien.
Group D: Partizan Belgrade, Köln, Nice & Slovácko
Group D is probably the most competitive with, at least, one top-quality side guaranteed to crash out.
FC Köln have qualified for six major European semi-finals and were beaten by Real Madrid in the 1986 UEFA Cup Final.
However, this is just the second time die Geißböcke have featured on the continent since 1992, exiting in the Europa League group phase five seasons ago.
This time round, Steffen Baumgart’s team actually lost the first leg of their play-off against Fehérvár, but recovered by winning 3-0 in Hungary.
Nice meantime also battled through the play-off round, losing in Israel but then beating Maccabi Tel Aviv 2-0 after extra time at Allianz Riviera.
This is the Eagles’ fourth UEFA group stage but, to date, they’ve only won six of 18 matches, finishing bottom twice.
Nevertheless, having signed Kasper Schmeichel, Aaron Ramsey and Nicolas Pépé, Lucien Favre’s team are expected to compete.
The top seeds in this section are Partizan Belgrade, who are competing in a 13th UEFA group stage.
Last season, the Black-Whites played 16 matches on the continent, reaching the round of 16 in this tournament.
Given all of that, the draw hasn’t been kind to Slovácko.
Having won their first-ever Czech Cup last season, they’re competing in a first group stage, demolishing AIK in qualification.
While they are big outsiders, the other three clubs will all feel they should reach the knockout rounds.
Prediction: 1st: Köln. 2nd: Partizan Belgrade. 3rd: Nice. 4th: Slovácko.
Group E: AZ Alkmaar, Apollon Limassol, Vaduz & Dnipro-1
AZ are big favourites to top this group, so will be making to look their quality count right from the get-go.
The Cheeseheads scored 18 goals in six qualifiers, hammering Tuzla City, Dundee United and Gil Vicente, so have reached a group stage for a fourth season running.
Pascal Jansen’s team topped their group unbeaten 12 months ago, so will be hoping to achieve something similar.
Alongside them are two of the most fascinating clubs in the entire competition.
First, Vaduz have become the first-ever club from Liechtenstein to get into the group phase, beating Koper, Konyaspor and Rapid Wien in qualifying, the latter both massive shocks.
What’s interesting about them is the fact their homeland is the only member of UEFA that does not have league.
Vaduz play in Switzerland’s second-tier, qualifying for Europe via the Liechtenstein Cup, a tournament they’ve won a world-record 48 times.
Meanwhile, Dnipro-1 are competing on the continent for the very first time.
They are a phoenix club, filling the void left by Dnipro Dnipropetrovsk who, against all odds, reached the 2015 Europa League Final, but went bankrupt shortly after.
To make matters more difficult, Oleksandr Kucher’s team will play home matches in Košice in Slovakia, given the ongoing Russian invasion of Ukraine.
So, Apollon Limassol are the pre-tournament front-runners to snap up second place.
The Cypriot club have reached a fifth UEFA group stage since 2013, although they’re yet to reach the knockout stages.
Given the kindness of the draw, David Català's side will fancy their chances of changing that fact.
Prediction: 1st: AZ Alkmaar. 2nd: Apollon Limassol. 3rd: Dnipro-1. 4th: Vaduz.
Group F: Gent, Molde, Shamrock Rovers & Djurgården
Group F could suffer from having a big gulf between the top two and the pair of outsiders.
Top-seeds Gent are featuring in their sixth group phase since 2016 and, in four of the previous five, they have ended up in the top two.
The Buffalos reached the round of 16 of this competition last season, but began this campaign by being hammered 4-0 by Omonia in the Europa League play-offs.
Molde meantime have reached the knockout stages the last two times they’ve got into the group stage, most recently getting to the Europa League round of 16 in 2021.
Erling Moe’s men overcame Elfsborg, Kisvárda and Wolfsberger AC in qualification, the latter an eye-catching scalp.
Elsewhere, the other two clubs in Group F are just delighted to be here.
This is Shamrock Rovers’ second appearance in a group stage, and first for 11 years, after overcoming Hibernians and Shkupi in qualifiers.
The Hoops lost all six matches in the Europa League 11 years ago, so any points they accumulate will be seen as a success.
Lastly, Djurgården are making their debut in a group stage, beating Rijeka, Sepsi OSK Sfântu Gheorghe and APOEL during qualification, two of which were against the odds.
The Swedish club will fancy their chances of picking up points in Stockholm, but may not collect enough to sneak through.
Prediction: 1st: Molde. 2nd: Gent. 3rd: Djurgården. 4th: Shamrock Rovers.
Group G: Slavia Prague, CFR Cluj, Sivasspor & Ballkani
Slavia Prague will host this season’s Europa Conference League Final, so can the Czech club get all the way to that final?
Well, that might sound farfetched, but Jindřich Trpišovský's team’s recent record on the continent suggets otherwise.
The Slavists reached the Europa League quarter-finals in both 2019 and 2021, before also getting to the last eight of this competition last time round.
So, having beaten St Joseph’s, Panathinaikos and Raków Częstochowa in qualification, Slavia have only lost eight of their last 33 matches on the continent.
While they’re favourites to top Group G, are CFR Cluj in a strong position to take second?
The five-in-a-row champions of Romania finished second in their Europa League group three years ago, but have subsequently won just two of 12 group fixtures.
Nevertheless, following qualifying victories over Inter Club d’Escaldes, Shakhtyor Soligorsk and Maribor, Dan Petrescu’s team are in good shape.
Sivasspor will be their biggest challengers for a top two finish.
Last season’s Turkish Cup winners have actually lost ten of their last 16 European games, including a Europa League play-off hammering by Malmö.
Lastly, Ballkani have become the first-ever Kosovar club to compete in a UEFA group phase.
They overcame La Fiorita, KÍ and Shkupi to get here, so expect three special occasions in Pristina.
Prediction: 1st: Slavia Prague. 2nd: CFR Cluj. 3rd: Sivasspor. 4th: Ballkani.
Group H: Basel, ŠK Slovan Bratislava, Žalgiris Vilnius & Pyunik
FC Basel boast impressive European pedigree and are overwhelming favourites to top Group H.
RotBlau reached the Europa League quarter-finals as recently as 2020, having got to the semi-finals of that competition in 2013, and have appeared in the Champions League knockout rounds on three occasions.
However, having not won the Swiss Super League since 2017, they’ve had to settle for this competition, bowing out in the round of 16 against Marseille in March.
This year, led by club legend Alexander Frei, Basel battled past Crusaders, Brøndby and CSKA Sofia, winning all three home games.
Below them, all three clubs will feel second place is within their reach.
ŠK Slovan Bratislava are probably favourites to advance, given that this is their third group stage in four seasons.
Žalgiris Vilnius meantime have become the first Lithuanian club to reach a group phase, causing a massive upset in qualifying when they knocked out Malmö.
Similarly, prior to this season, Pyunik had never gone further than the third qualifying round.
But, the Armenian champions overcame Cluj on penalties and then Dudelange to get here.
After rivals Alashkert finished bottom of their group last year, Pyunik will be looking to outdo their Yerevan neighbours.
Prediction: 1st: FC Basel. 2nd: ŠK Slovan Bratislava. 3rd: Žalgiris Vilnius. 4th: Pyunik.