COVID-19 delays Europa League Round of 16, but predictions must continue!

Sevilla vs. Roma highlight of fixtures, Leverkusen likely to advance with ease
MICHAEL TEOH/THE VARITY
MICHAEL TEOH/THE VARITY

The Europa League Round of 16 — the second tier of European club football below the UEFA Champions League — has been postponed due to COVID-19.

In both the 2016–2017 and 2018–2019 seasons, I correctly predicted six out of the eight Round of 16 results, however in 2017–2018, my success was a meagre four out of eight. For consistency’s sake, I thought I’d predict what would happen if the tournament didn’t get suspended, or what will happen if it continues in the future. Hopefully these predictions are more accurate than streaming FIFA 20 to decide matches, as some clubs are doing.

Sevilla-Roma and Wolfsburg-Shakhtar Donetsk look like the most tightly contested fixtures of the round. The first legs were played on March 12, and the second were to be played on March 19.

İstanbul Başakşehir vs. København

Both teams enter this match having achieved mixed results in the group stages, and neither were favourites to progress beyond their Round of 32 ties. Still, İstanbul Başakşehir overturned a 3–1 first leg deficit against Sporting Club de Portugal in remarkable fashion, while København dispatched the Scottish champions Celtic 4–2 on aggregate. Başakşehir have faced far tougher opposition than København, and have thus developed stronger defensive resilience. København have no real attacking threat — they have scored the fewest goals of the 12 remaining teams that started in the group stage — and they are unlikely to overcome their opponent’s narrow organizational structure. İstanbul Başakşehir win.

Olympiacos vs. Wolves

Wolves’ 17-goal haul in the competition proper is more than that of any remaining teams, and they have better players than Olympiacos in virtually every department.

Olympiacos will be buoyed by their victory over Arsenal in the previous round, and have every reason to believe they can cause Wolves trouble. However, with Wolves’ solid defensive line marshalled by Captain Conor Coady, Olympiacos will likely pin their hopes on their top scorer Youssef El-Arabi to create magic. Even then, Wolves’ forwards Diogo Jota and Raúl Jimenez have performed reliably in Europe with nine goals apiece, and will likely prove too much for the Greek side to handle. Wolves through.

Rangers vs. Bayer 04 Leverkusen

Steven Gerrard deserves plaudits for guiding his unfancied Rangers outfit thus far in the Europa League with some solid, if unspectacular, performances. This is Rangers’ best season in Europe since the 2010–2011 season, but their progress is likely to come to a grinding halt against the in-form Leverkusen.

Leverkusen finished third in a tough Champions League group containing Juventus and Atlético Madrid, after dismantling Porto in their first Europa League contest, with Lucas Alario and Kai Havertz particularly standing out. The German team tends to dominate possession — they averaged 60 per cent against Porto over two legs — and they make full use of an impressive press.

In recent weeks, Rangers have all but blown their chances of winning the Scottish Premiership with a stunning collapse in mentality that also saw them knocked out of the Scottish Cup, meaning that the Europa League is the last trophy they are still realistically competing for. If they want to progress they will need to be at their organized best and ensure that Alfredo Morelos and Ianis Hagi take full advantage of any chances they can carve out. However, given Leverkusen’s meticulous match-management and their stronger squad, the German team should win.

VFL Wolfsburg vs. Shakhtar Donetsk

On paper, Wolfsburg and Shakhtar look like very evenly matched sides. Wolfsburg Manager Oliver Glasner has turned his defense into a consistently disciplined unit while implementing an intense high press. Shakhtar Manager Luis Castro has likewise set his team up with defensive resilience at times this season, but his team often sit back patiently and hit opponents on the counter-attack. The two contrasting styles of play should have made this an entertaining duel, and success will hinge upon each team’s ability to stick to their game plan and avoid individual errors. Shakhtar to sneak through, courtesy of their more dynamic midfield.

Inter Milan vs. Getafe

Inter enter this game with a greater sense of expectation, which they owe to their high expenditure on players this season and Manager Antonio Conte’s credentials. Inter fans have been itching for a first-place trophy since the 2010–2011 season, and with the team still in the running for Serie A, the Coppa Italia, and the Europa League, Conte’s men are targeting an ambitious treble. Strikers Romelu Lukaku and Lautaro Martínez regularly dominate the headlines, but Inter have a number of other impressive players who, on paper, should outmatch their Getafe counterparts.

Getafe have been impressive both domestically and in the Europa League so far this season. They claimed a noteworthy victory against Ajax in the previous round, but have otherwise struggled to impose themselves against stronger teams. With Conte’s tactical astuteness and his host of star players, Inter should be able to book their quarterfinal spot.

Sevilla vs. Roma

This matchup is arguably the most exciting of the round, as both Sevilla and Roma are European heavyweights who harbour realistic ambitions of winning the competition. Sevilla have had more impressive results in the competition, but have faced much weaker opposition, so this tie is very open. Sevilla are adept at managing the ball and retaining possession, while Roma often set up in a compact and organized structure.

Given the similarities in tactics and ability between the two sides, control of the midfield and workrate will have a huge influence in determining which team progresses. Sevilla seem to have the edge in both departments. That said, Roma look unlikely to qualify for the Champions League through their domestic league, meaning that they may view this game as an all-or-nothing to save their season. In what could be decided by a coin flip, Sevilla to progress.

Frankfurt vs. Basel

Even though Frankfurt have fallen off the high standard they set for themselves last season, they have retained many of the tactical fundamentals that made them so successful. Like the other two German teams in the draw, they operate with an intense high press. Their inconsistency this season stems from opposition matching their intense press and barraging their flanks.

Basel do not play this way, nor do they seem capable of maintaining a high-tempo game. That said, they have shown that they are ruthlessly efficient and can capitalize on any errors that Frankfurt may make. Finding a middle ground between pressing Frankfurt enough to force mistakes and maintaining their own system of play will be essential for the Swiss team to get something out of this tie. In what could be a very close affair, Basel to pull off an upset win.

Linzer Athletik-Sport-Klub vs. Manchester United

Despite Manchester United’s inconsistent form this season and their at-times startlingly fragile mentality, the January addition of Bruno Fernandes looks to have improved their ability to assert control over the midfield, which will be a big boon to their forwards Mason Greenwood, Anthony Martial, and new boy Odion Ighalo.

Linzer Athletik-Sport-Klub (LASK) have been quietly impressive, however — right wing back Reinhold Ranftl in particular has demonstrated his creative ability with four assists and a goal in the competition. Manchester United’s defense may struggle to cope with LASK’s 3-4-3 formation, particularly given goalkeeper David De Gea’s increasingly shaky performances. To win, United need to play on the front foot and take advantage of the space between LASK’s full-backs — speedy winger Daniel James may be a useful option — while remaining diligent with possession. United to progress.

Editor’s Note (March 16, 7:03 pm): This article has been updated to correct that the games have been postponed, not cancelled.

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