Europa League: Five things to look out for

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Zlatan Ibrahimovic (Getty Images)
Zlatan Ibrahimovic (Getty Images)

The Europa League group stage kicks off on Thursday with two London clubs among the favourites to lift the trophy, a resurgent AC Milan also worth looking out for and a World Cup final hero trying to relaunch his career.

AFP Sport picks out five things to watch this week and throughout the competition:

Celtic v AC Milan

It is a fixture that would not have been out of place in the Champions League. These clubs have eight European Cups between them, seven for Milan and one for Celtic.

They faced each other eight times in the Champions League between 2004 and 2013, including in the last 16 in 2006/07, when Milan progressed 1-0 on aggregate before going on to win the competition.

The Italian giants have not been in Europe's elite club competition since 2013/14, but they are enjoying a resurgence at the start of this campaign, sitting top of Serie A with 39-year-old Zlatan Ibrahimovic in fine form.

Celtic are focused primarily on their bid to win a record 10th straight Scottish title this season and will miss the backing of 60,000 fans in their stadium in the East End of Glasgow.

Indeed, the Hoops face a tough task to get out of a group also containing Lille and Sparta Prague.

Arsenal and Spurs

British bookmakers have the north London clubs as the favourites to win the Europa League, although the most likely winners are sometimes the teams who drop out of the Champions League group stage.

The Gunners reached the final in 2019 under Unai Emery but look stronger with Mikel Arteta in charge. They start away to Rapid Vienna and will also play Molde and Dundalk in Group B.

Jose Mourinho's Tottenham have already had to beat opposition from Bulgaria, North Macedonia and Israel just to make it to the group stage where they will start at home to LASK of Austria.

Surely neither side will be prioritising this competition over the Premier League, but Mourinho has won it before, with Manchester United in 2017 and, in its former guise as the UEFA Cup, with Porto in 2003.

Can Spanish sides be stopped?

Sevilla's triumph over Inter Milan in last season's final means Spanish teams have won the Europa League in seven of the past 11 years. Sevilla have won four of those, while Atletico Madrid have won three.

The trophy has been won by Spanish sides 10 times since 2004. Real Sociedad and Villarreal look capable of doing well, while Granada will also hope to make an impression in their debut European campaign.

Mario Goetze

Still just 28, Goetze has lost his way since scoring the winner for Germany in the 2014 World Cup final.

After failing to hit the heights expected at Bayern Munich, a return to his first club Borussia Dortmund did not work out, and earlier this month he made a surprise switch to Dutch club PSV Eindhoven.

He scored on his debut last weekend and PSV will hope he can help them shine in the Europa League as they kick off at home to Granada.

Dundalk

There is an Irish representative in the group stage for just the third time, with Dundalk matching their achievement in 2016/17 and that of Shamrock Rovers in 2011/12.

The club from County Louth on Ireland's east coast dropped out of the Champions League in the first qualifying round but bounced back to win three qualifiers and make the group stage of the Europa League.

A glamour tie against Arsenal will be a highlight for the team coached by Italian Filippo Giovagnoli in Group B. They start at their makeshift home in Dublin against Norwegians Molde. Dundalk's aim will be to at least do better than on their last appearance in the group stage, when they recorded a solitary victory in six attempts.

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