By Peter Auf der Heyde
Arsenal travel to the Greek port of Piraeus for Thursday’s first leg of their Europa League knockout stage against Olympiacos.
The Gunners, who lost last year’s final to Chelsea, take on Olympiacos on the back of a convincing 4-0 league victory against Newcastle on Sunday, with Mesut Özil scoring his first goal of the season.
The Greek side have been pretty impressive at home in the Europa League, beating Burnley in the qualifying rounds and eliminating the Premier League team and then adding the scalp of AC Milan to their repertoire.
The 3-1 against the Serie A was the result Pedro Martins’ team needed to stay in the competition.
Arsenal goalkeeper Bernd Leno, who has been in outstanding form for the Gunners this season, is aware that Olympiacos will not be pushovers. “In the Europa League we have so many difficult games, so many big games because we saw last season that in the Europa League quarter-finals and semi-finals you get Champions League teams.
“They are all playing for the title and the [Europa League] final was a very, very big game. We want to have this final again. Hopefully we can a win title this season,” the German said.
The top clubs from the group stage of the Europa League have been joined by the eight third-placed teams from the Champions League, which sees several of the big names of European football entering the competition – like Ajax, Porto and Inter Milan.
This, of course, makes for some excellent ties.
Manchester United, who won the Europe League in 2017 travel to Belgium for their game against Club Brugge. The Reds’ were involved in a Premier League game on Monday at Chelsea, meaning they only had three days to recuperate.
Ole Gunnar Solskjær has been giving a lot of non-regular players a run in the Europa League and as the Reds are pursuing an improvement in their Premier League position, it could well be that the Norwegian coach decides that his priority lies with the domestic league.
The third Premier League club remaining in the competition – Wolverhampton Wanderers – are at home in the Molineux Stadium to La Liga club Espanyol Barcelona.
Wolves, who have made a return to European football for the first time since the 1980/1 season, when they lost in the first round of the UEFA Cup to PSV Eindhoven, have been punching above their weight.
They are again enjoying another good season in the Premier League and are currently seventh – better placed than both Manchester United and Arsenal.
In 1972 Wolves made it all the way to the final of the UEFA Cup, losing to English rivals Tottenham Hotspur. One of the stars in that Wolves side, Kenny Hibbitt, is confident that the current side is good enough to go all the way.
“Getting into the knockouts is a wonderful achievement – not just from the manager, but the club as a whole. Espanyol are a good side. No game in the last 32 is an easy one.
“But there is no need for Wolves to be overly concerned about them. Wolves are not playing these games to make the fixtures up. They want to win and get to a major final.”
African football fans will be able to see all the action live and HD on the StarTimes football channels as the digital-TV operator has secured the exclusive rights to this exciting competition.
Peter Auf der Heyde
Peter Auf der Heyde is an award-winning football journalist and author, who covers the big European leagues. As a South African by birth, he is particularly interested in the African connection within European football and has covered 12 consecutive Africa Cup of Nations tournaments live. Formerly head of sport at the English service of the German Press Association, he is one of the leading Bundesliga experts.
Auf der Heyde played professionally for Bosmont Chelsea in the South African top flight and now spends his time migrating between South Africa, Germany and the UK.