The UEFA Europa Conference League group stages are back, with matchday one kicking off on 21 September.
Five clubs are making their debuts in European group stages, while 2022 Europa League winners Eintracht Frankfurt and 1982 European Cup champions Aston Villa are amongst the favourites to go all the way.
This season’s final, scheduled for 29 May, will take place at the newly-opened Agia Sophia Stadium in Athens, the first time the Greek capital has hosted a major final since the 2007 Champions League showpiece.
140 matches will be played before then, so here’s a group by group preview ahead of the big kick off.
Group A: Lille, Slovan Bratislava, Olimpija Ljubljana & KÍ Klaksvik
LOSC Lille are one of the big-hitters across all eight groups, and they’re certainly odds-on favourites to top their section.
Having said that, les Dogues had to battle through the play-off round, eventually overcoming HNK Rijeka, courtesy of Jonathan David’s extra time goal in Croatia.
This saw Lille qualify for a 12th group stage, with the French side aiming to reach the quarter-finals of a major UEFA competition for the very first time.
Their most-likely challengers in Group A are likely to be ŠK Slovan Bratislava.
The Slovakian champions will feature in a fourth group stage in just five seasons, getting all the way to the round of 16 just last season, before being dumped out by FC Basel on penalties.
Completing the quartet are two clubs preparing to make their group stage debuts.
Slovenian champions Olimpija Ljubljana enjoyed qualification victories over both Valmiera and Ludogorets Razgrad, with João Henriques’ side thereby making history just by getting this far.
Meanwhile, Klaksvíkar Ítróttarfelag will become the Faroe Islands’ first-ever representatives in a group phase.
KÍ Klaksvik caused big upsets by defeating both Ferencváros and BK Häcken in qualifiers, and all three of their home matches at Tórsvøllur will be massive occasions for the entire nation.
Prediction: 1st: Lille. 2nd: ŠK Slovan Bratislava. 3rd: Olimpija Ljubljana. 4th: Klaksvíkar Ítróttarfelag.
Group B: Gent, Maccabi Tel Aviv, Zorya Luhansk & Breiðablik
Gent, on paper, should be by some distance the strongest side in Group B.
Hein Vanhaezebrouck’s side reached the quarter-finals of the Europa Conference League just last season, before eventually falling to West Ham.
This season, de Buffalos cruised through qualifying, scoring 20 goals in six matches against MŠK Žilina, Pogoń Szczecin and APOEL, thereby reaching a group stages for a fifth successive season.
Maccabi Tel Aviv meantime are an interesting story, not least because Robbie Keane is their manager.
The Yellows ousted Petrocub Hîncești, AEK Larnaca and Celje during qualifying, and are aiming to repeat what they achieved in both 2020 and 2021 by getting through to the knockout rounds.
Zorya Luhansk are one of just two Ukrainian clubs who will be proudly flying their country’s flag across all three competitions.
This is the fifth time Zorya have reached the group phase, although they’re yet to get any further.
Lastly, Breiðablik have already made history, becoming the first-ever Icelandic club to qualify for a UEFA group stage.
They began their campaign way back on 27 June, with Óskar Hrafn Þorvaldsson’s team overcoming Tre Penne, Budućnost Podgorica, Shamrock Rovers and Struga as they made history.
As mentioned, Gent are by far this group’s strongest team, but second spot is certainly up for grabs.
Prediction: 1st: Gent. 2nd: Maccabi Tel Aviv. 3rd: Zorya Luhansk. 4th: Breiðablik.
Group C: GNK Dinamo Zagreb, Viktoria Plzeň, Astana & Ballkani
GNK Dinamo Zagreb are certainly Group C’s heavyweights, featuring in UEFA’s third-tier tournament for the very first time.
The Croatian champions began this campaign hoping to get into the Champions League, but defeats to AEK Athens and Sparta Prague in the last two rounds of qualifying saw them drop down to this competition.
The Blues have at least got into a 19th UEFA group stage, only failing to qualify once since 2006.
Viktoria Plzeň too were featuring in the Champions League 12 months ago, but had to win qualifiers against Drita, Gżira United and Tobol just to get this far.
The Czech side last reached the knockout phase in 2018/19 where they were dumped out by Dinamo, hoping their return to Zagreb goes better this autumn.
Kazakh champions Astana are back competing in a group phase for the first time in four years, following a narrow 2-1 victory over Partizani Tirana in the play-off round.
Lastly, Kosovar champions Ballkani have not qualified for the group stages in back-to-back seasons, aiming to improve on last year’s points tally of four.
Prediction: 1st: GNK Dinamo Zagreb. 2nd: Viktoria Plzeň. 3rd: Ballkani. 4th: Astana.
Group D: Club Brugge, Bodø/Glimt, Beşiktaş & Lugano
Group D is, without question, the most competitive across in the Europa Conference League with, at least, one high-quality team guaranteed to crash out.
Club Brugge reached the Champions League knockout stages just last season, their deepest run in that competition for three decades, before being hammered by Benfica.
This summer, Ronny Deila’s team had to come through three qualifiers just to get into the Europa Conference League, most-notable battling past Osasuna in the play-off round, advancing 4-3 on aggregate.
Meantime, Beşiktaş also had to win three qualifiers to reach the group stages, their first for two seasons, having not appeared in European competition of any kind at all last time round.
The Black Eagles have lost 12 of their last 13 group phase fixtures, including each of the last seven, but Şenol Güneş’ side believe they can reach the knockout phase for the first time since 2017/18.
While they might not have the history and prestige of the first two teams mentioned, Bodø/Glimt cannot be underestimated.
Kjetil Knutsen’s team have now qualified for a UEFA group stage in three successive seasons, getting all the way to the quarter-finals of this tournament, on debut no less, the season before last.
The Eliteserien leaders have lost just two of their last 21 European home games, so no one will be looking forward to visiting the Arctic Circle later this year.
Having finished third in last season’s Swiss Super League, Lugano are back in the group stages for the first time since 2019.
However, one has to feel sorry for Mattia Croci-Torti’s team, who’ve landed in a group of death, and will be forced to play home fixtures at Stade de Genève, which is a full 240 miles away from their actual home.
This group is certainly the one to keep an eye on, with the top three seeds, sorry Lugano, all battling it out for two spots.
Prediction: 1st: Beşiktaş. 2nd: Club Brugge. 3rd: Bodø/Glimt. 4th: Lugano.
Group E: AZ Alkmaar, Aston Villa, Legia Warszawa & HŠK Zrinjski Mostar
Aston Villa’s first European adventure for 13 years got off to a pretty decent start didn’t it, so just how far will they go?
The Villans demolished Hibernian 8-0 in the play-off round, so their supporters now have three more away days, that they’ll actually require passports for, to look forward to.
Given that Unai Emery has reached five Europa League Finals in his career, winning four of them, Villa are the favourites, and rightly so, to be hoisting this trophy aloft at Agia Sophia Stadium in Athens on 29 May.
They aren’t likely to have it all their own way in this group though, not least because top-seeds AZ Alkmaar reached the semi-finals last time round, narrowly beaten by West Ham.
The Cheeseheads have topped their group in both seasons of the Europa Conference League and, while repeating that feat will be difficult, Pascal Jansen’s side are still confident of getting through.
Legia Warszawa were the last team to book their place in the group phase, winning a nerve-shredding penalty shootout against Midtjylland deep into the night just hours before the draw.
The Polish giants haven’t finished in the top two of a group for nine season, and Kosta Runjaić's side will have to upset the odds to change that fact.
Lastly, whatever happens from here on out, HŠK Zrinjski Mostar have already made history.
Wins over Urartu and Breiðablik have seen them become the first team from Bosnia & Herzegovina to qualify for a UEFA group stage, although this does, understandably, make Zrinjski odds-on favourites to come bottom.
Prediction: 1st: Aston Villa. 2nd: AZ Alkmaar. 3rd: Legia Warszawa. 4th: HŠK Zrinjski Mostar.
Group F: Ferencváros, Fiorentina, Genk & Čukarički
Fiorentina reached the Europa Conference League Final last season, narrowly beaten 2-1 by West Ham in Prague, so will the Italian side go one better this time round?
Well, Vincenzo Italiano’s team had to battle just to get into the group phase, coming from behind to defeat Austria Wien in the play-offs, losing 1-0 away, before Nicolás González’s brace secured a 2-0 home win.
I Viola also reached last year’s Coppa Italia Final, defeated by Inter, so are desperate to end the club’s 23-year trophy draught, one way or another.
I Gigliati may be favourites to top Group F, but Ferencváros are the top seeds, with this the fifth successive season the Hungarian champions have got into a group phase.
The Greens’ campaign began catastrophically, dumped out of Champions League qualifying by KÍ, but victories over Shamrock Rovers, Ħamrun Spartans and Žalgiris Vilnius saw them salvage the season.
Ferencváros actually topped their Europa League group 12 months ago, eventually ousted by Bayer Leverkusen in the round of 16, so could be dark horses to make a deep run in this tournament.
Genk meantime have already endured an eventful European campaign, dumped out of Champions League qualifying by Servette on penalties, before losing to Olympiacos in the Europa League.
De Smurfen then, very nearly, fell out of Europe all together, taken to a penalty shootout by Adana Demirspor, that Wouter Vrancken’s side, just about, won 5-4 in Türkiye.
Completing the quartet are Čukarički, with the Serbian side set to debut in a UEFA group stage.
Given that the Highlanders were hammered 6-1 by Olympiacos in the Europa League play-offs, it’s not patronising to suggest that Čukarički may struggle to pick up points in this group.
Prediction: 1st: Fiorentina. 2nd: Ferencváros. 3rd: Genk. 4th: Čukarički.
Group G: Eintracht Frankfurt, PAOK, HJK Helsinki & Aberdeen
Eintracht Frankfurt are rightly amongst the favourites to win the Europa Conference League, making them very likely to cruise through this group.
Die Adler won the Europa League 16 months ago, a triumph that earned them a spot in last season’s Champions League, where they reached the round of 16, eventually dumped out by Napoli.
Under new Head Coach Dino Toppmöller, Frankfurt proved to be too strong for Levski Sofia in the play-off round, with that theme set to continue in this group.
Below them, second place could be up for grabs, with PAOK favourites to take that spot before a ball is kicked.
Răzvan Lucescu’s side easily overcome Beitar Jerusalem, Hajduk Split and Heart of Midlothian to get here, with the Greek side aiming to replicate what they achieved two seasons ago when they were quarter-finalists.
Elsewhere, Veikkausliiga champions have not qualified for a group phase for a third successive season, following wins over Larne and Farul Constanța during the summer months.
The Finnish side have never ended up higher than third in a European group stage, so can Toni Korkeakunnas’ team make history?
Lastly, Aberdeen are back competing in a group phase for the first time since 2007.
The Dons though were disappointingly defeated in the Europa League play-offs by BK Häcken, suggesting Barry Robson’s team will struggle to pick up very many points in this group.
Prediction: 1st: Eintracht Frankfurt. 2nd: PAOK. 3rd: HJK Helsinki. 4th: Aberdeen.
Group H: Fenerbahçe, Ludogorets Razgrad, Spartak Trnava & Nordsjælland
Fenerbahçe are Group H’s top-seeds, but will they still be sitting in first place come the end of the final matchday on 14 December?
İsmail Kartal’s team had to overcame Zimbru Chișinău, Maribor and Twente just to get this far, but did so in style, winning all six matches and scoring 21 goals.
The Türkiye Kupası winners haven’t finished in the top two of a European group since 2018, but Fenerbahçe do look well-placed to change that fact.
Ten-in-a-row Bulgarian champions Ludogorets Razgrad meantime have now qualified for a UEFA group stage in ten successive seasons, courtesy of wins over Ballkani and Astana.
The Eagles have only ever won one of six knockout phase ties, this coming against Lazio a decade ago, so, while Ivaylo Petev’s team might get through this group, they’re unlikely to get much further.
Elsewhere, Slovak Cup winners Spartak Trnava are preparing for their second group stage campaign, five years on from their first, having upset the odds twice in qualifying, ousting both Lech Poznań and Dnipro-1.
Similarly, before this season, Nordsjælland had only ever featured in a solitary group phase this, bizarrely, coming in the Champions League 11 years ago.
Johannes Thorup’s side changed that by ousting both Steaua București and Partizan Belgrade in August, prevailing 2-0 and 6-0, so the Danish club should not be overlooked.
Prediction: 1st: Fenerbahçe. 2nd: Ludogorets Razgrad. 3rd: Nordsjælland. 4th: Spartak Trnava.