The UEFA Europa League group stages are back, with matchday one kicking off on 21 September.
Six clubs are making their debut in a European group stage, while they’re joined by heavyweights, Liverpool, Roma, Ajax, Villarreal and last season’s Europa Conference League winners West Ham United.
The final, scheduled for 22 May, will take place at Lansdowne Road in Dublin, with the Aviva Stadium hosting the final of this competition for the second time.
140 matches will be played before then, so here’s a group by group preview ahead of the big kick off.
Group A: West Ham United, Olympiacos, Freiburg & TSC Bačka Topola
West Ham United have enjoyed great success in Europe across the last couple of seasons, but will face some tough tests in Group A.
Having reached the Europa League semi-finals in 2022 and then won the Europa Conference League back in June, David Moyes’ men are amongst the favourites to go all the way and be in Dublin next May.
Alongside them, Olympiacos and Freiburg have been drawn together for a second successive season, with the Bundesliga side winning 3-0 in Piraeus 12 months ago, before a 1-1 draw in Europa-Park Stadion.
Christian Streich’s side went on to reach the round of 16, Freiburg’s best-ever performance in a UEFA competition, so Breisgau-Brasilianer will be no push-overs.
Olympiacos meantime, following qualification victories over Genk and Čukarički, are preparing to compete in a 26th major UEFA group stage, looking to improve on last season when they accumulated a measly 2 points.
Lastly, TSC Bačka Topola will make their debut in a European group stage, having finished second in last season’s Serbian SuperLiga.
Žarko Lazetić's side were hammered 7-1 by Braga in Champions League qualifying last month and, in a very competitive Group A, TSC are firm favourites to finish rock bottom.
Prediction: 1st: West Ham United. 2nd: Freiburg. 3rd: Olympiacos. 4th: TSC Bačka Topola.
Group B: Ajax, Olympique Marseille, Brighton & Hove Albion & AEK Athens
Even before the draw was concluded, Group B leapt off the page as the group of death.
Following last season’s sixth place finish in the Premier League, Brighton & Hove Albion will feature in European competition for the very first time.
Roberto De Zerbi’s side have continued to impress at the start of the new campaign, but the Seagulls will have to remain at their best in a very challenging group.
1992 UEFA Cup winners Ajax are the top seeds, but had to overcome Ludogorets Razgrad in the play-offs just to get here, following last season’s third-place finish in the Eredivisie.
The Dutch juggernauts are going through something of a transitional phase right now, so Maurice Steijn’s side could miss out on a top two finish.
Olympique de Marseille are celebrating 30 years since they became the first, and so far only, French club to be crowned champions of Europe.
Although, les Phocéens’ party was rather ruined by Panathinaikos in the Champions League third qualifying round dumped out on penalties at Stade Vélodrome last month.
Nevertheless, having reached the Europa Conference League semi-finals the season before last, Marcelino’s team are hopeful of making an impact in this tournament.
Lastly, Greek champions AEK Athens find themselves in a very tough section, after being ousted by Royal Antwerp in the Champions League play-offs.
This season’s Europa Conference League Final will take place at AEK’s new home, Agia Sophia Stadium, but even third spot in this group could prove to be beyond Matías Almeyda’s team.
Prediction: 1st: Brighton & Hove Albion. 2nd: Olympique Marseille. 3rd: Ajax. 4th: AEK Athens.
Group C: Rangers, Real Betis, Sparta Prague & Aris Limassol
Back in the Europa League, how far will 2022 finalists Rangers go?
12 months ago, the Gers ended their 12-year wait for Champions League group stage qualification, but it certainly did not go to plan from there, losing all six matches, conceding a whopping 22 goals.
This time round, the Scottish side failed to get back into Europe’s top-tier competition, hammered by PSV in the play-offs, but Michael Beale’s side will feel they can compete back at this level.
Rangers have lost just three of their last 32 Europa League home games, and Ibrox will continue to be a fortress.
That said, Real Betis are the pre-tournament favourites to take top spot.
This is the third successive season in which los Verdiblancos have featured in the Europa League, reaching the round of 16 in each of the last two, with Manuel Pellegrini’s team hoping to go even further this time.
Sparta Prague meantime pulled off a remarkable comeback to get into the group stages, losing the first leg of their play-off 3-1 in Zagreb, before turning this around by beating GNK Dinamo 4-1 at home a week later.
The Maroons haven’t finished in the top two of a UEFA group since 2016, and Brian Priske’s side will have to upset the odds to change that fact.
Completing the quartet are Aris Limassol, with the Cypriot champions preparing to debut in a group phase, following qualifying victories over BATE Borisov and ŠK Slovan Bratislava.
Prediction: 1st: Real Betis. 2nd: Rangers. 3rd: Sparta Prague. 4th: Aris Limassol.
Group D: Atalanta, Sporting CP, Sturm Graz & Raków Częstochowa
On paper, Group D has a clear top two and bottom two, but will it pan out that way?
Atalanta are back in Europe, after only one season away, with the 2022 quarter-finalists targeting a similarly lengthy run.
Gian Piero Gasperini’s side look very strong in Serie A just now, making la Dea favourites to finish first.
Sporting Clube de Portugal though will have something to say about that, after reaching the quarter-finals just last season, knocking out Arsenal on penalties before a narrow 2-1 defeat to Juventus.
This was the Leões’ best run on the continent for five seasons, while Sporting have finished in the top two of their last five Europa League groups, a record Rúben Amorim’s team are aiming to extend.
Meantime, this is Sturm Graz’s third successive season in the Europa League group stages, although they’ve finished bottom both times.
In fact, die Schwoazn’s last four group phase appearances have all resulted in them coming dead-last, a streak that dates back to 2000, a fact Christian Ilzer’s team are hopeful of putting right.
That’s because, rounding out the quartet are UEFA group stage debutants Raków Częstochowa.
Having won their first-ever Ekstraklasa title, Raków impressed in Champions League qualifying, dumping out Flora Tallinn, Qarabağ and Aris Limassol, before a play-off round defeat to København.
Third place is up for grabs, but it would be a major surprise if Atalanta and Sporting CP didn’t take the top two positions.
Prediction: 1st: Atalanta. 2nd: Sporting CP. 3rd: Sturm Graz. 4th: Raków Częstochowa.
Group E: Liverpool, LASK, Royale Union Saint-Gilloise & Toulouse
You’re probably aware that Liverpool are six-times champions of Europe, but the Reds also have fantastic pedigree in this competition too, picking up the trophy in 1973, 1976 and again in 2001.
Following last season’s fifth place finish in the Premier League, Jürgen Klopp’s team are competing in the Europa League for the first time since 2015/16 when they reached the final, defeated by Sevilla.
Liverpool have never failed to get out of their group in this competition, a fact that’s unlikely to change, with the English juggernauts heavy favourites to take top spot.
Elsewhere, could their nearest challengers be Royale Union Saint-Gilloise?
Les Unionistes were back competing in Europe for the first time in 58 years last season but, despite this lack of expirence, they got all the way to the Europa League quarter-finals.
Union SG also swatted aside Lugano in the play-off round, prevailing 3-0, so the Belgians cannot be underestimated.
Meantime, having reached the Europa Conference League last 16 earlier this year, LASK are now hoping to have an impact on a higher-tier of UEFA competition.
Die Schwarz-Weißen took care of HŠK Zrinjski Mostar in the play-offs, and their representatives at the draw were clearly delighted when LASK were paired with Liverpool on Friday, getting the glamour tie they craved.
Lastly, after capturing their first Coupe de France trophy since 1957 in April, Toulouse are back in UEFA competition for the first time in 14 seasons.
Despite their cup win, les Violets actually finished 13th in Ligue 1 last time round, so Carles Martínez Novell’s team are big underdogs to get through this group.
Prediction: 1st: Liverpool. 2nd: Royale Union Saint-Gilloise. 3rd: LASK. 4th: Toulouse.
Group F: Villarreal, Stade Rennais, Maccabi Haifa & Panathinaikos
Similar to Group D, this section has two clear front-runners alongside a pair of rank-outsiders.
2021 winners Villarreal have never failed to finish in the top two of a Europa League group, with this set to be their 11th appearances, a record Quique Setién’s team are likely to preserve.
Stade Rennais meantime are competing on the continent for a sixth successive season, following last season’s fourth place finish in Ligue 1.
Les Rouge et Noirs have reached the knockout phase in each of the last two seasons, dumped out by Shakhtar Donetsk on penalties in February, with Bruno Génésio’s side expected to achieve another top two finish.
Maccabi Haifa meanwhile overcame Ħamrun Spartans, Sheriff and Slovan Bratislava in Champions League qualifiers during the summer, before a play-off round defeat to BSC Young Boys.
The Israeli champions have not featured in the knockout rounds since 2006/07, a fact Messay Dego’s side are determined to change, even if by virtue of finishing third.
Panathinaikos are back in a UEFA group stage for the first time since 2016, memorably beating both Dnipro-1 and then Olympique Marseille on penalties in Champions League qualifiers, before defeat to Braga.
The Greens are winless in 13 Europa League group phase fixtures, with Ivan Jovanović's men hoping to end that sequence on matchday one.
Prediction: 1st: Villarreal. 2nd: Stade Rennais. 3rd: Maccabi Haifa. 4th: Panathinaikos.
Group G: Roma, Slavia Prague, FC Sheriff Tiraspol & Servette
Will last season’s beaten finalists Roma go all the way this time round?
José Mourinho’s team won the inaugural Europa Conference League in 2022, before getting all the way to the final of this competition 12 months later, only this time they were defeated on penalties by Sevilla.
Nevertheless, this pedigree certainly makes I Giallorossi overwhelming favourites to top Group G, and amongst those most-likely to be in Dublin for this season’s final on 22 May.
Slavia Prague though cannot be written off, having reached three major European quarter-finals in the last five seasons.
Jindřich Trpišovský's team overcame Ukrainian duo Dnipro-1 and Zorya Luhansk in qualifiers during the summer, with the Slavists fancying their chances of reaching the knockout phase.
FC Sheriff Tiraspol are also familiar faces at this level, with Roberto Bordin’s men competing in a UEFA group phase for a third season in succession.
The Divizia Națională champions ousted Farul Constanța, BATE Borisov and Klaksvíkar Ítróttarfelag to get here, winning all four home matches during qualifying, so will need Transnistria to remain a fortress.
Rounding out the quartet are Servette, with last season’s Swiss runners-up set to debut in a UEFA group stage, after memorable beating Genk on penalties in a qualifier back in early-August.
Prediction: 1st: Roma. 2nd: Slavia Prague. 3rd: FC Sheriff Tiraspol. 4th: Servette.
Group H: Bayer Leverkusen, Qarabağ, Molde & BK Häcken
Without want to dismiss the other three teams, it would be a major surprise if Bayer Leverkusen didn’t take top spot in Group H.
Die Werkself reached the semi-finals of the Europa League just last season, overcoming Monaco, Ferencváros and Royale Union Saint-Gilloise, before a 1-0 aggregate defeat to Roma.
Xabi Alonso’s side have also began the new season on fire, recording wins over RB Leipzig and Borussia Mönchengladbach, scoring three both times, making Bayer one of the strongest teams in this tournament.
Qarabağ meantime are preparing for a tenth successive season of UEFA group stage football, following qualification victories over Lincoln Red Imps, HJK and Olimpija Ljubljana.
The Azeri champions have never finished higher than third in a Europa League group, so can Gurban Gurbanov’s team make history this year?
Also in this section are Norwegian champions Molde, after they were dumped out in the Champions League play-offs by Galatasaray.
Erling Moe’s team reached the round of 16 three seasons ago, Molde’s best-ever run in Europe, but a repeat seems unlikely.
Completing the trio of champions are BK Häcken who, after winning their first-ever Allsvenskan title in 2022, are set to debut in a UEFA group stage.
All three sides will fancy their chances of snatching second spot.
Prediction: 1st: Bayer Leverkusen. 2nd: Qarabağ. 3rd: BK Häcken. 4th: Molde.