The Europa League knockout stage is here.
A gruelling qualification and group process is complete. In order to get a better grasp of who's left, I've broken the remaining teams down into small groups. We now have a final 32 made up of Champions League flops, dark horses and underdogs—with plenty of surprises left in store.
Remaining squads must wait two weeks to see who they face next. Will Chelsea continue to destroy memories of last year's European triumph? Will Atletico Madrid retain the trophy? Will Metalist Kharkiv evade the odds and secure an unlikely trophy?
All these questions will be answered in good time. For now, enjoy the article.
Finishing third in a Champions League group produces different reactions depending on who you are.
While the ultra-rich Chelsea and Zenit will bemoan their failing, the likes of Bate and Cluj will enter Europe's secondary competition with a sense of achievement.
Indeed, Ajax should also be immensely proud with maintaining a place in European football altogether. The Dutch side battled hard to accumulate four Champions League points in a group that included Borussia Dortmund, Real Madrid and Manchester City.
Kiev, Olympiacos and Benfica are experienced European sides that will fancy their chances of progressing into the latter stages of the competition. The Portuguese team—in particular—will feel they should challenge for the trophy.
For others, a change in mindset is needed. Chelsea's miserable Champions League campaign ensured the London-based club were the first defenders to exit at the group stage. Rafa Benitez and his backroom staff know this historic "achievement" must be forgotten quickly.
It's all too easy for Champions League teams to drop down and expect an easy ride. A lack of motivation will end in embarrassment—just ask the Manchester clubs.
One to win: Chelsea
One to watch: Bate Borisov
Teams: Atletico Madrid, Inter Milan, Lyon
Alongside the obvious threat of the Champions League drop outs, a handful of clubs should be outlined as familiar favourites. These teams excelled in the group stage and represent the best of the competition's originals.
Atletico Madrid are difficult to look past right now. Despite a 1-0 loss to Viktoria Plzen in the final group game, Diego Simeone's side have a real chance of securing a third Europa League crown in four years. Although Radamel Falcao is yet to make an impression away from La Liga, the Colombian's presence post-Christmas could act as a catalyst for success.
Inter Milan will also expect to challenge. The Italian giants have plenty to prove heading into the second half of the season. Four points from the Serie A summit, this may be Andrea Stramaccioni's best chance of winning major silverware.
Diego Milito spearheaded Inter's 2010 Champions League triumph and will be hurting at the club's lack of inclusion this time round. Definitely something to prove for the black and blues.
High-flying Lyon should also be considered amongst the favourites. The French outfit only dropped two points in a competitive Group I and currently lead Ligue 1.
This brings about a welcome change in the club's annual European adventure. Instead of struggling through a tough Champions League group stage, Lyon remain unbeaten in the Europa League. This consistency and confidence could upset the more likely winners.
One to win: Atletico Madrid
One to watch: Lyon
The sheer amount of clubs in this category indicates how difficult it is to emerge as Europa League winners. All of the aforementioned teams could be worth a cheeky bet and have the capability to sustain a run to the final.
Viktoria Plzen's European form has been impressive. Although Academica and Hapoel Tel Aviv aren't the most prolific of opponents, a victory against Atletico Madrid in the final group fixture will have grabbed the attention of many.
Dnipro's Group F win should also be applauded. The Ukrainian side have got to focus on the Europa League now they have fallen 13 points behind Shakhtar Donetsk in the domestic campaign. Just one loss in a group that included Napoli, PSV Eindhoven and AIK is a major achievement for the side.
Although Napoli finished second behind Dnipro, most teams will want to avoid the Italians. Edinson Cavani netted seven goals in the group stage—indicating Walter Mazzarri's group may pose a more immediate threat than Dnipro. It'll be interesting to see if the Serie A contenders can outlast Lazio in a battle of the sky blues.
Premier League clubs also have a shot at going all the way. Aside from Chelsea, its Liverpool and Spurs who are likely to install fear into their opponents.
Brenden Rodgers' inexperienced squad overcame Anzhi's bank balance to progress as Group A winners. The new boss will need to strengthen his squad—particularly in the striking department—if the club from Anfield are to amount a significant challenge.
Similarly, most teams will want to miss out on playing Spurs. Unlike Liverpool, Andre Villas-Boas has a squad that is ready made to win the competition. He has a plethora of world class talents at his disposal—making the side from White Hart Lane a real humdinger of an outside bet.
Perhaps the most intriguing of the dark horses is Bayer Leverkusen. The German side has enjoyed a brilliant few weeks. A run of four victories in the Bundesliga has propelled them to second in the table behind a Bayern Munich side that continues to dominate. Although Leverkusen finished as runners-up behind Metalist Kharkiv in Group K, confidence is building.
Let's not forget the threat of Anzhi and Rubin Kazan, either. The latter finished three points ahead of Inter Milan in Group H and is struggling in the Russian League. All eggs, one basket.
Anzhi boast the competition's top scorer, as eternal goal machine Sammy Eto'o continues to notch up vital strikes. .
One to win: Tottenham Hotspur
One to watch: Dnipro
With 32 teams heading into the knockout stages, the Europa League servers up a number of underdog storylines.
Many of these clubs are suffering under the pressure of the Europa League. Monchengladbach and Hannover remain 10th and 12th respectively in the Bundesliga. Alan Pardew's injury-riddled Newcastle side current sit 14th in the Premier League. Even Genk—who so often compete for the Belgian title—are fourth in Jupiler League.
Metalist are in a decent position to sustain a threat. The Ukrainian club will be an unknown quantity to many and are used to winning in all competitions this year.
Newcastle fans will be urging an improvement from the famous Magpies. St James' Park has the capacity to be an intimidating arena, but the cauldron effect has worn off with recent results. If Demba Ba can remain fit—and key individuals such as Hatem Ben Arfa return—the Premier League has a real chance of producing a winner this year.
One to win: Metalist Kharkiv
One to watch: Newcastle United
We've taken a look at the Europa League's final 32. We've considered the expectations and limitations of the teams competing. Now it's time to outline who will win.
Here are my picks, starting with who I believe is the most likely to capture the trophy:
1. Atletico Madrid
2. Chelsea (swap with Atletico if they sign Falcao in January)
3. Inter Milan
5. Zenit St Petersburg
6. Tottenham Hotspur
11. Anzhi Makhachkala
12. Bayer Leverkusen
13. Bate Borisov
15. Viktoria Plzen
16. Rubin Kazan
19. Dynamo Kiev
20. Metalist Kharkiv
21. Newcastle United
23. Borussia Monchengladbach
25. Steau Bucuresti
27. FC Basel
30. Sparta Prague
Who do you think will win the Europa League? Let me know in the comments section below and be sure to follow me on Twitter: