UEFA Europa League Matchday 1 storylines: All eyes on Zlatan Ibrahimovic; Mourinho returns to UEL with Spurs

The 2020-21 Europa League group stage begins Thursday with 24 matches split into two time slots (12:55 p.m. and 3 p.m. ET), which promises to produce some intriguing results. You can watch every Europa League game on CBS All Access. For a look at the schedule, click here.

Let’s take a look at the slate and examine five key storylines ahead of the big day of European football.

Group stage: Matchday 1 schedule

Thursday, Oct. 22

(All times U.S./Eastern)

  • Young Boys vs. Roma, 12:55 p.m. (CBS All Access)  
  • CSKA-Sofia vs. CFR Cluj, 12:55 p.m. (CBS All Access)  
  • Dundalk vs. Molde, 12:55 p.m. (CBS All Access)  
  • Rapid Wien vs. Arsenal, 12:55 p.m. (CBS All Access)  
  • Bayer Leverkusen vs. Nice, 12:55 p.m. (CBS All Access)  
  • Hapoel Beer-Sheva vs. Slavia Prague, 12:55 p.m. (CBS All Access)  
  • Standard Liege vs. Rangers, 12:55 p.m.(CBS All Access)  
  • Lech Poznan vs. Benfica, 12:55 p.m. (CBS All Access)  
  • PSV Eindhoven vs. Granada, 12:55 p.m. (CBS All Access)  
  • PAOK vs. Omonoia, 12:55 p.m. (CBS All Access)  
  • Napoli vs. AZ Alkmaar, 12:55 p.m. (CBS All Access)  
  • Rijeka vs. Real Sociedad, 12:55 p.m. (CBS All Access)  
  • Braga vs. AEK Athens, 3 p.m. (CBS All Access)  
  • Leicester City vs. Zorya Luhansk, 3 p.m. (CBS All Access)  
  • Sparta Prague vs. Lille, 3 p.m. (CBS All Access)  
  • Celtic vs. AC Milan, 3 p.m. (CBS All Access)  
  • Maccabi Tel-Aviv vs. Qarabag, 3 p.m. (CBS All Access)  
  • Villarreal vs. Sivasspor, 3 p.m. (CBS All Access)  
  • Tottenham vs. LASK, 3 p.m. (CBS All Access)  
  • Ludogorets vs. Royal Antwerp, 3 p.m. (CBS All Access)  
  • Dinamo Zagreb vs. Feyenoord, 3 p.m. (CBS All Access)  
  • Wolfsberg vs. CSKA Moscow, 3 p.m. (CBS All Access)  
  • Hoffenheim vs. Red Star Belgrade, 3 p.m. (CBS All Access)  
  • Slovan Liberec vs. Gent, 3 p.m. (CBS All Access)

1. All eyes on Ibrahimovic

In terms of matchups that carry the most historical weight in Europe, Thursday’s Celtic-Milan match might be the best of the bunch, but all eyes will be on Zlatan Ibrahimovic. The prolific goal-scoring machine recovered from COVID-19 and bagged a brace to secure a 2-1 win over Inter Milan in the Derby della Madonnina over the weekend. He may very well feature against a Celtic side reeling after a 2-0 loss to their Scottish rivals Rangers in the Old Firm over the weekend. 

Ibrahimovic has plenty of domestic trophies to his name, but believe it or not, he’s never won a major European title outside of the UEFA Super Cup for Barcelona back in 2009. Although he’s at the twilight of his storied career, this might be his last and best chance to snap that drought. Milan have the third-best odds to win the 2021 Europa League title at +1000, just behind Arsenal and Tottenham (courtesy of William Hill Sportsbook).

2. Partey time for Arsenal?

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Thomas Partey made a 12-minute cameo in the Gunners’ 1-0 loss to Manchester City over the weekend in the Premier League. The transfer deadline day signing — to the tune of roughly $60 million — traveled to Austria and during Wednesday’s press conference, manager Mikel Arteta hinted that the 27-year-old Ghanaian international might make his debut in the starting XI after getting a few more training sessions under his belt. Arsenal are at the top of William Hill futures to win the Europa League at +700, and with some relatively easy opponents in the group stage — Rapid Wien, Molde and Dundalk — this should be a soft landing spot for Partey.

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3. Watch out for the Italian teams

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There are three Italian clubs in the group stage and we already spoke about AC Milan above. So that leaves us with Napoli and Roma.

Napoli boss Gennaro Gattuso is still fuming over the Juventus forfeit over COVID-19 tests. Everyone will have their eyes on forwards Dries Mertens and Hirving “Chucky” Lozano, but don’t sleep on 21-year-old rising Nigerian star Victor Osimhen who recently joined the team from Lille and scored his first goal for Napoli in a 4-1 win over Champions League participants Atalanta. Gattuso has his team clicking just in time for the UEL group stage. Bad news for their Dutch opponent AZ Alkmaar.

As for Roma, they hung tough against Juventus last month and nearly came away with three points if it were not for a late brace from Cristiano Ronaldo. Portuguese manager Paulo Fonseca has his team rolling just in time for the group stage, with back-to-back league wins. With a Monday league fixture against AC Milan looming, Fonseca will need to make sure that Jordan Veretout, Edin Dzeko, Henrikh Mkhitaryan and the rest of this squad don’t overlook this matchup against Young Boys.

4. Wales. Golf. Europa.

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There might not be another manager in this competition with a more stacked roster than Jose Mourinho’s Tottenham Hotspur. After facing a scare against Bulgarian side Lokomotiv Plovdiv in the second qualifying round where they needed goals in the 80th and 85th minute from Harry Kane and Tanguy Ndombele, respectively, to overcome a one-goal deficit, Spurs are back in form. Well, sort of. Mourinho’s men scored 16 goals over the past three matches in all competitions, including a 7-2 win over Maccabi Haffa in Europa League play-off and a 6-1 thumping over Manchester United in Premier League play before the international break. After the break, they coughed up a 3-0 lead to West Ham and settled for a 3-3 draw as Gareth Bale made his long-awaited Spurs reunion debut.

Bale, who only played 18 minutes on Sunday, could be the key for Spurs as they begin their quest for an elusive European trophy against LASK in London. Frankly, they’re looking for any trophy at this point as they try to snap a 12-year title drought dating back to their 2008 Carling Cup triumph.

“It’s the third time I played the competition and the other two times, one with Porto and one with [Manchester] United, we managed to win it,” Mourinho told reporters. “So the record in the Europa League is great, never knocked out. Of course, lost a few matches in the group phase but managed always to win it.”    

5. Jesus and Benfica primed for deep run

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If you love Jose Mourinho as a brash and brazen manager, then you need to check out his Portuguese compatriot Jorge Jesus of Benfica. Jesus is a Benfica lifer, having coached the club from 2009-2015 with back-to-back runner-up appearances in the Europa League (2012-13, 2013-14). He recently left Brazil where he guided Flamengo to just about every trophy imaginable, including the Copa Libertadores, Brasileirao and a runner-up appearance in the FIFA Club World Cup where they lost to Liverpool in extra time. On his way out, he poached 24-year-old Brazilian midfielder Everton Soares from Gremio, who was the 2019 Copa America Golden Boot winner, and he might strike again in the winter transfer window depending on how The Eagles fare in the group stage. The club recently lost some gems and replaced them with some savvy vets in Jan Vertonghen and Nicolas Otamendi to provide some leadership and experience in the back line. Jesus might have a road test against Lech Poznan on Thursday, but this club has bigger dreams as they try to snap the Curse of Bela Guttmann. Don’t be surprised if you see this team in May. 


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