Glasgow, London and Milan all have potential derby drama ahead in the Europa League
The knockout stages of the European competition could have some enticing clashes on the horizon when the knockout stages begin
This has been football’s year of the derby as exotic export. First, there was Real Madrid versus Atletico for the Uefa Super Cup, shuttled all the way over to Talinn, Estonia.
Then there was the surreal 10,000 kilometre journey of the second leg of the Copa Libertadores final, finally played out at a safe enough distance from Buenos Aires for River Plate and Boca Juniors to share a pitch without the peace being disturbed.
To look ahead to the business end of the Europa League is to anticipate that, in early 2019, some noxious neighbours may very well be brought together with a major international prize at stake.
The competition is shaping up as a potential hopscotch of potential derbies when it enters its knockout phase, its favourites concentrated around particular cities, or regions, known for the fierce duels of their leading clubs.
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By the end of tonight, that impression could be even stronger. Keep an eye on Glasgow, where Celtic supporters will have a keen interest in events in Vienna even as they gather for their own club’s final group match at home to RB Salzburg.
At stake in this pair of Austria-v-Scotland deciders are whether Rangers, needing a win, can leapfrog Rapid Vienna - who need only a draw - in the last fixture of a suffocatingly tight Group G.
In Group B, Celtic need only a point at home to an already qualified Salzburg, and could even lose and still scrape into the next phase.
Europa League rules state that clubs from the same country can only meet at the last 16 stage, in March, and beyond.
It is plausible that once we reach there, five or six cities could each have a pair of contestants vying for a quarter-final spot, both imagining the final could mark a historic milestone in their derby story.
The good news for security services who worry about local feuds being stoked with a major trophy at stake is that the final will take place in Baku, which is a very long way indeed from Glasgow, or, for that matter, from Lisbon, Seville, Milan, or London.
Euroderbies are not, though, a matter of dread. The fact that so many neighbours may be jostling up next to one another in the spring, in a European context, must be a benefit for the Europa League, whose secondary status, behind the Uefa Champions League, means it welcomes fixtures that have their own stand-alone resonance. It needs its Thursdays to have an extra frisson.
On the red side of Milan, Tuesday night’s agonising descent of Inter Milan into the Europa League, after their failure to beat PSV Eindhoven in their last group match in the Champions League, will have been enjoyed with more than just a degree of Schadenfreude.
AC Milan will guarantee joining Inter in the Europa League knockouts if they draw at Olympiakos this evening.
In Milan’s Group F, Real Betis are already through, and keen to see if Sevilla, co-habitees of a city which produced an epic, two-legged Europa League last-16 tie that went all the way to penalties five seasons ago, will be fellow riders into the last 32. A Sevilla home win against Krasnodar tonight means they would.
Spanish football might also spy the possibility of its Derbi de la Comunitat, the spicy valenciano contest, being played out as a Euroderby for the second time. Valencia, the big-city rivals of smalltownneighbours Villarreal was a Uefa Cup semi-final in 2004. It could be on the agenda again if Villarreal gain the point they need at home to Spartak Moscow.
Valencia will be dropping down from the Champions League, as will Galatasaray, an arrival that makes the competition doubly interesting for Istanbul: Fenerbahce are already through from Europa League group D.
In Lisbon, meanwhile, there’s a relish for the fact Benfica, relegated from the Champions League, now join Sporting in the same tournament, at a time when Sporting are ahead of their rivals in the domestic table.
London has a powerful duo already certain of their places in Monday’s draw. Arsenal and Chelsea, who could hardly be more closely matched in the Premier League table, must both rank among the favourites, and will be probably be hoping to steer clear of one another as long as they can.
Updated: December 13, 2018 11:22 AM