Another year, another set of Europa League Round of 16 predictions. The unseeded draw of Europe’s second-tier continental competition promises a number of tough fixtures between some evenly matched sides. The first legs will be played on March 7, and the second on March 14.
In 2017, I correctly predicted six out of eight results in the Round of 16; my prediction success rate last year dropped to a meagre four out of eight. Frankfurt-Internazionale and Napoli-Salzburg look set to be the most exciting ties of the round, and the winners of each can lay a strong claim to going all the way.
Chelsea vs. Dynamo Kyiv
For geopolitical reasons, Russian and Ukrainian teams could not be drawn together, meaning that Dynamo Kyiv avoided Russian outfits Krasnodar and Zenit. Instead, they face the daunting prospect of a 3,000-mile round trip to Chelsea’s Stamford Bridge in leg one. Dissonance is in the air at Chelsea following a poor run of results and manager Maurizio Sarri’s seeming lack of tactical manoeuvrability. While Sarri’s commendable management of the Kepa Arrizabalaga fiasco and a recent willingness to abandon his oft-maligned ‘Sarri-ball’ system have helped steady the ship, the team remains fully aware of how quickly the tide can turn at a club with demanding fans and an impatient board.
Dynamo have failed to stamp their authority on European games, owing mostly to a midfield with a penchant for sitting back and absorbing attacking pressure rather than pressing and seeking to counter. The compact, coordinated pressing system of ‘Sarri-ball’ can make a triumphant and justified return here, with N’Golo Kanté and the Chelsea midfield sure to cut through Dynamo’s passive midfield and link up in attacking play. The proof is in the pudding: Chelsea have completed 5,399 passes in the competition thus far, compared to Dynamo’s 3,204. Even if Dynamo adjust their tactics, they lack the personnel to realistically compete with Chelsea’s stars, whose only real concern should be the lengthy journey to Kyiv for the second leg. Chelsea through.
Frankfurt vs. Internazionale
Arguably the showpiece tie of the round. Barring a first leg draw against Shakhtar Donetsk in the Round of 32, Frankfurt have won all of their European ties and have the most goals in the competition. Internazionale, meanwhile, dropped down from the Champions League to the Europa League, where their skill level is arguably better suited. Frankfurt deploy a high press, often attempting to trap their opposition in their own half. To circumvent this, Inter will have to play long balls forward to try and exploit the space behind the defense, with wingers Ivan Perišić and Antonio Candreva or Matteo Politano likely to chase the ball to the wide areas. The problem of this approach is Frankfurt’s use of a back five.
Navigating past the three central defenders will be a tough ask for Inter and would leave their flanks exposed. If Inter’s wingers are not mindful of supporting their own fullbacks, Frankfurt’s marauding wingbacks Danny da Costa and Filip Kostić — who already have five goals between them in the competition — can break on the counter to dangerous effect. Add the influence of star striker Luka Jović, who has six goals in eight games, and Frankfurt are likely to advance.
Dinamo Zagreb vs. Benfica
Dinamo Zagreb have had a solid European campaign, losing for the first time away at Plzeň in the Round of 32 first leg. However, despite dispatching well-known European teams Anderlecht and Fenerbahçe along the way, the Croatian team have yet to truly face a strong, in-form outfit. Enter Benfica, who are top of the Primeira Liga and who were unlucky to come up against heavyweights Bayern Munich and resurgent Ajax in their Champions League group stage. Benfica’s free-flowing play and wealth of individual talent from players like Pizzi, Rafa Silva, and Haris Seferović will prove too much for Dinamo to handle. Benfica through.
Napoli vs. Salzburg
Both Napoli and Salzburg will rue being drawn against each other, and the competition will be poorer for the loss of one of these teams. Salzburg have been one of the standout performers this year, with their swashbuckling attacking style propelling them to 22 goals in seven wins, including a perfect group stage. Napoli, meanwhile, dropped down from the Champions League, having failed to find the necessary cutting edge to qualify from their group.
Napoli have more experienced and talented personnel than their Austrian opponents, but their patient, slow build-up playing mentality will likely feed right into the hands of Salzburg’s high-tempo, expansive football. Napoli will need to effectively track the build-up play and deploy a more urgent press if they hope to succeed, but they can take comfort in the fact that their defense, marshalled by Kalidou Koulibaly, will be very tough to break down. In what promises to be a tight contest, Salzburg to squeak through.
Valencia vs. Krasnodar
When Krasnodar beat Sevilla in the group stage, it seemed that something special could be brewing. The Russian team had persisted with hard work on and off the ball against the tournament’s favourites. This early anticipation would fade as the competition progressed, showing that hard work alone isn’t enough.
Now they face a well-drilled Valencia side who breezed past Celtic in the Round of 32. Valencia are also well-stocked in the midfield — look to the individual talent of Denis Cheryshev, Gonçalo Guedes, and Daniel Parejo to make the difference for Valencia, who should qualify with relative ease.
Sevilla vs. Slavia Praha
If five-time Europa League winners could have selected their opponents for this round, they likely would have chosen Slavia Praha. The Czech outfit are the lowest-scoring team that started the campaign in the Europa League left, with eight goals, four of which came against a subpar Genk in the second leg of the Round of 32. Sevilla have 21. It would take both a remarkable collapse from Sevilla’s possession-based approach and remarkable tactical finesse from Slavia Praha for the result of this match to even be in question. Sevilla, who are the favourites to win the competition outright, to proceed.
Arsenal vs. Rennes
While Arsenal have superior players to Rennes in every department, their progress to the quarter finals will hinge primarily on who they deploy on the wings and how compact Rennes play. Striker Alexandre Lacazette is suspended for both games, meaning that Pierre-Emerick Aubameyang will likely fill the centre forward role. This leaves Alex Iwobi, Henrikh Mkhitaryan, and Denis Suárez the likely options on the wing. The recurring problem for Arsenal this season is that none of them are actually wingers; each naturally plays through the centre, where Mesut Özil and Aaron Ramsey are already stationed.
Rennes, in their Round of 32 match against Real Betis, overloaded the wide flanks with their wingers and fullbacks on the counter. If Arsenal’s wingers revert to their penchant of tucking into narrow channels in the midfield, the London team’s full backs may be left too exposed. Against decidedly stronger opposition, however, Rennes have tended to play in a compact manner, such as during their recent 4–1 defeat to Paris Saint-Germain in the league.
Electing for this approach would be a surefire path to elimination, but even if they play expansive football, Arsenal will likely to inflict more damage on them than Betis could, courtesy of control of the middle of the pitch. Arsenal through.
Zenit vs. Villarreal
Zenit have never lost at home in the Europa League in 23 games, and Villarreal look unlikely to buck this trend. Conversely, Villarreal are unbeaten in Europe this campaign, and Zenit look equally unlikely to buck this trend. This impasse points to the potential of away goals determining who will progress to the quarter finals. The departure of Leandro Paredes is bound to harm Zenit’s ability to create goal-scoring chances, while Villarreal’s addition of Vicente Iborra adds to the Spanish team’s threat going forward. Villarreal to advance.