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Europa League knockout round play-offs preview: predicting who will qualify in each tie

The UEFA Europa League first knockout round gets underway on 16 February, with the return legs a week later. The 8 group runners-ups will take on a Champions League drop-out, all aiming to join the 8 group winners in next month’s round of 16.

Last season, five of the eight ties were won by the Champions League third-place finishers, so will this trend continue this year?

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Ajax vs Union Berlin

Union Berlin are one of the form teams in Europe right now so, despite being up against far more illustrious opponents, come into this tie as firm favourites.

On Saturday, die Eisernen came from behind to beat RB Leipzig, thereby making it five successive Bundesliga victories.

That leaves Urs Fischer’s team second, just one point below Bayern Munich.

In Europe, Union Berlin began the Europa League group phase with back-to-back loses, but recovered brilliantly by winning four on the spin.

Thus, this is the first time ever they’ve reached the knockout phase of any UEFA competition and could be dark horses to make a deep run.

Ajax, in stark contrast, have won four European Cups and a Cup Winners’ Cup, reaching the final of this tournament just six years ago.

Right now though, the Eredivisie champions are in crisis, sacking manager Alfred Schreuder after failing to win seven successive league games for the first time since 1965.

Since John Heitinga took over, they’ve won all three matches, but remain third in the table, three points below AZ.

In the Champions League this season, Ajax did smash Rangers twice, but lost all four fixtures against Liverpool and Napoli.

With the second leg at Stadion An der Alten Försterei to come, Union Berlin are clear favourites to advance.

Juventus vs Nantes

Following their 15-point deduction in Serie A, winning this competition is almost certainly Juventus’ best route into next season’s Champions League.

Having had 15 points taken away, subject to appeal, la Vecchia Signora are ninth in Serie A, 12 points below the Champions League spots.

So, the 1977, 1990 and 1993 UEFA Cup winners will surely be going all out, seeking to capture this trophy for a fourth time.

In the autumn, Massimiliano Allegri’s side were shambolic in the Champions League, losing five of six matches, only pipping Maccabi Haifa to third place by virtue of goals difference.

More-recently though, Juve have won ten of their last 13 league matches, and have reached the Coppa Italia semis.

So, despite being a far from flawless outfit, I Bianconeri have to be favourites in this tie.

Nantes meantime snuck into second spot in their Europa League group, thanks to matchday five victories over Qarabağ and then Olympiacos.

La Maison Jaune’s best-ever campaign in UEFA competition came in 1996, reaching the Champions League semi-finals, when they were ousted 4-3 by Juventus.

With Antoine Kombouaré’s team currently down in 13th in Ligue 1, this tie is likely to go the same way.

Sevilla vs PSV Eindhoven

As the old saying goes, there are three certainties in life: death, taxes and Sevilla winning the Europa League.

Los Nervionenses have won this trophy a record six-times, all coming since 2006, only entering ten times during this period.

However, this trend is unlikely to continue this time round, with los Nervionenses currently 12th in La Liga.

Jorge Sampaoli’s side were in the bottom three on Christmas Day, but four straight home wins in 2023 have propelled them away from danger.

In the Champions League earlier this season, Sevilla’s sole victory came at home to København and, even if they have undoubtedly improved in recent weeks, they’re not the force of old.

So, despite selling Cody Gakpo and Noni Madueke, for a combined €77 million in January, PSV Eindhoven will be confident of springing a surprise.

Ruud van Nistelrooy’s team accumulated 13 points in their Europa League group, but were narrowly pipped to first place by Arsenal, a side they swatted aside 2-0 in the Netherlands.

The Red and Whites won this competition in 1978, and the European Cup a decade later, but haven’t come through a knockout phase tie, in the first or second-tier competitions, for 12 years.

If PSV can avoid defeat at Estadio Ramón Sánchez-Pizjuán, they’ll be in pole position to progress.

RB Salzburg vs Roma

How far will last season’s Europa Conference League winners go in this year second-tier competition?

The first two times José Mourinho entered this tournament he won it both times, with Porto in 2003 and Manchester United 14 years later.

Then, last season, he become the second manager, after Giovanni Trapattoni, to win all three-tiers of UEFA competition, leading Roma to glory in Tirana.

This season, I Giallorossi finished second in their Europa League section, failing to win either meeting with group winners Real Betis.

Meantime, in Serie A, Roma are fourth, desperate to get back into the Champions League, by hook or by crook.

Red Bull Salzburg meantime have been in the Champions League in each of the last four seasons, having completely monopolised the Austrian Bundesliga.

However, they haven’t gone beyond the round of 16 of any continental tournament since being UEFA Cup Finalists in 1994.

This time round, Matthias Jaissle’s side only won once in this Champions League, beating GNK Dinamo at home, but did hold both A.C. Milan and Chelsea to 1-1 draws.

So, this tie is tough to call but, with the second leg at Stadio Olimpico, Roma are slight favourites.

Bayer Leverkusen vs Monaco

Bayer Leverkusen live streaming

How far will 1988 UEFA Cup winners Bayer Leverkusen go in this season’s tournament?

Die Werkself won just once in this season’s Champions League, beating Atlético at home, but did enough to take third place, above Atleti on head-to-head.

Meanwhile, in the Bundesliga, despite having won six of their last eight, Xabi Alonso’s side are eighth, given that they endured a nightmare start, prior to Alonso’s appointment.

Monaco meantime have moved up to third in Ligue 1 and are unbeaten in eight, following Saturday’s 3-1 victory over Paris Saint-Germain.

In the Europa League, les Monégasques did beat Crvena zvezda home and away, but were pipped to top spot by Ferencváros on head-to-head record.

Famously, Monaco reached the Champions League semi-finals in 2017, but haven’t won a knockout tie in this tournament since 2000, dumped out by Braga 12 months ago.

With both finding form recently, this one could go either-way.

Shakhtar Donetsk vs Stade Rennais

Will Shakhtar Donetsk continue to punch above their weight in UEFA competition, as they continue to play ‘home’ fixtures in Poland’s capital Warsaw.

Igor Jovićević’s ended the Champions League group phase with a very respectable six points, hammering RB Leipzig away and then, almost, beating Real Madrid at home.

So, even as the invasion rages on in their home land, the Miners continue to fly the Ukrainian flag in Europe.

Two other factors mean that Shakhtar come into this contest as big underdogs.

First, and most obviously, they’ve sold talisman Mykhailo Mudryk to Chelsea, while this first leg will be their first competitive fixture for 85 days.

Thus, Stade Rennais are big favourites to advance, dreaming of reaching a major European quarter-final for the very first time.

Les Rouge et Noir accumulated 12 points in their Europa League group, but still ended up two points adrift leaders Fenerbahçe.

Bruno Génésio’s side continue to be inconsistent in Ligue 1, but last month’s home win over PSG shows, on their day, Rennes can beat anyone.

Baring a hammering at Stadion Wojska Polskiego, Rennes will be confident of getting through, with the second leg at a rocking Roazhon Park to come.

Sporting CP vs Midtjylland

18 years ago, Sporting Clube de Portugal reached the final of this competition, but were embarrassingly beaten by CSKA Moskva in their own stadium.

Since then, the Leões’ best run on the continent came in 2012, beaten in the Europa League semis, so how far will they go this time?

In the autumn, Rúben Amorim’s men very nearly reached the Champions League knockout phase, but were ousted by Eintracht Frankfurt in a last matchday shootout.

In that campaign, Sporting began with back-to-back wins, but then took just a solitary point from their final four fixtures.

Nevertheless, Sporting still come into this clash as overwhelming favourites.

Midtjylland have never won a tie in the knockout phase of a European competition, ousted in this round by Manchester United in 2017 and PAOK 12 months ago.

This season, the Wolves’ Europa League group was truly remarkable, with all four clubs ending up on eight points.

Albert Capellas’ team beat Sturm Graz 2-0 on matchday six, and this was enough to see them take second spot on goal difference.

Domestically though, Midtjylland are seventh in the Danish Superligaen, having not been in league action since 13 November.

So, Sporting will be looking to catch the visitors cold and establish an unassailable lead at Estádio José Alvalade.

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Ben Gray

Arsenal fan – follow them over land and sea (and Leicester); sofa Celtic supporter; a bit of a football '"encyclopedia".

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