The UEFA Europa League, which used to be the UEFA Cup, is one of the most swollen competitions in soccer history. With its endless qualifying stages and teams that seemingly come from nowhere, the Europa League is a smaller stage in which clubs with a smaller investment can make a name for themselves.
This competition is so democratic that it receives teams that ended up in third in Champions League group stage, and throws them right into the first knockout stage.
While we can all agree that APOEL's exploits in the Champions League can be denominated the Cinderella story of the season, especially if they can miraculously beat Real Madrid, the Europa League has very interesting stories in itself.
Here is how I think this competition will shape up.
In my opinion, Valencia knocked out one of the biggest challengers for the Europa League title in PSV. That being said, I still don't believe that they are the favorites for the title this year. Valencia is playing very well in the Europa League under Unai Emery and are one of the most skilled sides left in the competition.
Even though one might seemingly tip this draw towards Valencia, AZ Alkmaar are no pushovers by any means. AZ is in first place in the Eredivisie, ahead of Ajax. Jozy Altidore and Swedish star Rasmus Elm have 10 goals each in the season and, along with Maarten Maartens, have been carrying this team for the whole season.
I think this battle will play out with Valencia trying to punch through AZ's wall. AZ will be striking sporadically on the counter-attack, hoping that Elm, Maartens and Altidore make something out of their opportunities.
I believe that Valencia will control the possession in this battle and, due to the amount difference-making players on their squad, they'll win.
But Valencia is a streaky team. If they don't get it on as soon as the game starts, AZ might be able to wait them out and strike in the latter stages of games or even in the overtime.
All in all, I'll tip this one towards the Spaniards.
This draw is very enigmatic and a bit heart-wrenching for me.
On one side, Athletic Bilbao. The Basques are in their best season in a while, in Spain. They're sixth, behind the superpowers Barcelona and Real Madrid, and just eliminated the Red Devils. Bilbao put on a clinic both at the Old Trafford and in the San Mamés.
What is most astonishing to me, is that this team is succeeding with Cantera policy. This is their policy of only allowing Basque players in their team. With wonderkid Iker Muniain, hitman Fernando Llorente and under maestro Javi Martinez, the Basques are laying waste to everyone in the Europa League.
All of this aside, I'm happy that their coach, Marcelo Bielsa is enjoying success at a continental stage after two World Cup failures with Argentina and Chile. Bielsa, called El Loco (the Mad Man) in South America, is winning games setting his squad forward and playing at a quick pace. Bielsa deserves this good moment.
On the other side, FC Schalke 04. Schalke, much like Bilbao, has one of the most hapless pasts in soccer history. Their last Bundesliga title is more than 50 years old and, in the last decade alone, they have fallen short several times, once losing the title on the season's final match.
After a pitiful season last year, Schalke is back with a vengeance in the Bundesliga and in the Europa League. With Timo Hildebrand surprising at goal, Raul and his high football IQ have been running defenses ragged and Klaas-Jan Huntelaar has been scoring goals galore seemingly out of nowhere.
With Schalke playing a tight, simple game at defense, it might be hard for Bilbao to display their flamboyant style. Also, Raul and Huntelaar will be ready to pounce on every chance they get. This battle has everything to be the best draw in the year. I'm expecting fireworks or two dull games but, the first option a lot more likely.
This draw is one of the most even in the competition but, again, I'll have to tip it towards the Spaniards, I mean, the Basques.
This is the wildcard of the draws. Anything might happen between these teams.
Sporting eliminated the nouveau riche Manchester City on away goals. The key goal was scored by Xandão, a centre-back that was out of favour in Brazilian side São Paulo FC until he finally landed in Lisbon. Much to the chagrin of São Paulo supporters, Xandão has been playing an elite-level football and, together with Brazilian box-to-box man Elias, has been guiding Sporting to latter stages of the Champions League.
Sporting has their underlying weapon in the Dutch youngster Ricky Van Wolfswinkel. With a nose for the net, this kid is an underrated striker that might cause trouble for the third power in the Ukraine.
Metalist Kharkiv, for some years, hasn't been able to ascend to the Ukranian title barred by the Ukranian Leviathans Shakhtar Donetsk and Dynamo Kiev. Their owner, Oleksander Yaroslavsky, has been pouring a ridiculous amount of money and Kharkiv has gone with the South American combo of filling the team with Brazilians and Argentines.
Cleiton Xavier, Marlos and Taison, along with Jonathan Cristaldo and Jose Ernesto Sosa (ex-Napoli and Bayern Munich) have been responsible for producing offense for this squad and they have been doing it quite well.
I'm going to tip this draw towards the Portuguese because of the massive boost they received from knocking out the top English power in Manchester City.
Also, Sporting is a much more complete squad than Kharkiv but, the Ukranians can upset them. Using their strong offense and with inspired play from Crisitan Villagra on defense, Kharkiv will sell this defeat very expensively to Sporting.
This is one of the most curious draws of this Europa League.
Two seasons ago, Atletico Madrid brought home the Europa League, courtesy of Diego Forlan. Times are different and after a poor showing last season in Spain, the team has reinvented itself with the likes of Diego and Radamel Falcão.
Now, Atleti is not far from where they were back then and have a legitimate shot at the Europa League this year. If the aforementioned players along with Turkish rising star Arda Turan keep producing, they have a good chance to keep on moving. The defense has the ability to play a very safe game along with the stellar play of Thibault Courtois, this team is poised for a run at the title.
Hannover 96 undoubtedly faces an uphill battle against the Spanish side. After having routed Standard Liege 4x0, the team will look for the likes of Didier Ya Konan and Jan Schlaudraff to maintain their goal scoring ways. The veteran defense will look to play a simple game to give this squad some sense of safety against Atleti.
Despite being an intriguing side under Mirko Slomka, I can't see Hannover moving forward against a much better Atletico Madrid.
Provided my predictions are accurate, this will be one of the semi-finals and it has to be one of the most exciting battles of the competition.
Valencia schooled Stoke City and their tie with PSV propelled them forward. I believe that this is a team that has returned to its rightful place as the third power in Spain, and they're looking for greener pastures in Europe. This is the only competition they're in that they're not stuck with both Barcelona and Real Madrid. This condition alone makes them a favorite by default but, let's not be so hasty as to slot them as a possible finalist.
Why? Same thing goes for Atletico Madrid. Eight in La Liga, the Colchoneros have been struggling ever since Fernando "El Niño" Torres left them, despite shining in a few seasons. La Liga is a very strong competition and I think that this team has the ability to challenge for the Europa League year in and year out.
Having said this, in my opinion, Valencia has more game-breaking power than Atletico. If Mehmet Topal, Dani Parejo, Jonas and, Pablo Piatti play close to their fullest potential, they out-do Diego, Falcao & Co.
In my mind, this draw goes to Valencia.
If I'm right, this semi-final has everything to be a high-scoring affair that fills the pitch with free-flowing attacking football.
I like both squads but, I'm absolutely in love with Marcelo Bielsa's concept of soccer. This man is the unsung hero of this sport. This being said, I believe that Bilbao's youthful, energetic style will out do Sporting's more sober style of football. The likes of Iker Muniain, Ander Herrera and, Oscar de Marcos have the speed to expose the flaws in Sporting's defense.
All in all, I think the balance of power lies in if Fernando Llorente returns to the Basque team at an elite level. If Llorente returns, he'll be too much for Sporting's defense to handle. His skill set not only allows him to be an effective scorer but, it frees up space for the rest of his teammates to produce.
Sporting has a lot of recognizable names like Emiliano Insua, Stjin Schaars, Matias Fernandez, Marat Izmailov and, Jeffren Suarez. All these players contribute to a strong squad despite the cheap investment. But, when talking about cheap investment with a bountiful return, the model is Bilbao.
Bilbao rarely acquires players and only signs Basque nationals that come through free agency like Gaizka Toquero and Igor Gabilondo. Their Lezama youth academy has given birth to the main players in the team. Their like Barcelona but, in a provincial scale.
I can't help but to tip this one towards the Basques.
This match could be played once more May 9th in Bucharest, Romania.
Despite both teams, provided my predictions are right, having knocked out some powerful opponents, I think that the hungrier team is Bilbao. Valencia lost two Champions League finals against Bayern Munich (one of the best games in history, in my opinion) and against Real Madrid. Despite having gone through some lean years during the last decade, I think that the Basques are hungrier than them.
This is could be their first title and biggest achievement. These players would reach almost immortality in the Basque folk and it would certainly cause a passionate celebration from that nation. If Bilbao wins, it is much more than a victory in an European competition.
If Bilbao wins, it is the victory of old-school soccer over the game as it is. It would, in a way, crown El Loco's style of attacking, free-flowing soccer that is so lauded in Barcelona. Also, it would mark a new era in Spanish national soccer where the Basque players would definitely be more looked on to the national squad.
Something that is mostly overlooked is the political factor that this win might have. Today, football is a political catalyst in the world and it was like that in Spain. Barcelona and Catalunya know first-hand. The Basque separatist movement has been dialed down greatly and the terrorist ETA is now, thankfully, defunct. But, different than Barcelona, Bilbao's achievements come with no aid from outside. This is a Basque team from the inside out. I wonder what a win by Bilbao would do to the Basque morale as a whole...
All in all, if I'm right, Bilbao will win their first continental title and their first title since 1984.