After picking the runners-up in the Europa League last season, securing an each-way profit, Jake Osgathorpe returns with his selections for this season.
2pts e.w. Roma to win the Europa League at 16/1 (General - 1/2 odds 1,2)
2pts e.w. Bayer Leverkusen to win the Europa League at 20/1 (General - 1/2 odds 1,2)
2pts e.w. West Ham to win the Europa League at 20/1 (General - 1/2 odds 1,2)
We were a penalty shootout away from landing a 16/1 winner in last season's Europa League, with Roma suffering the fate as so many before them when facing Sevilla in this competition as the Spanish side won it for a record-extending seventh time.
As we head into the new Europa League campaign, proceedings, as ever, start with no reigning champion, with the biggest carrot to winning this competition - for most clubs - being an automatic spot in pot one of the following season's Champions League.
That is the biggest plus to success in Europe's secondary competition, and we tend to see a certain type of club thrive in the latter stages.
Take last season for example - all of the four semi-finalists were struggling to qualify for the Champions League via their domestic routes, while six of the eight quarter-finalists needed to win the Europa League in order to make the UCL.
That round saw Manchester United - who finished third in the Premier League - and Feyenoord, who won the Eredivisie, eliminated.
The round before saw Arsenal, who were in the midst of a Premier League title charge, ousted, along with Real Sociedad and Union Berlin - two teams who were bang in the top-four race in La Liga and the Bundesliga respectively, with both achieving such finishes.
There is no question in my mind that come February/March time the Europa League is viewed as either a hindrance or a last chance saloon, which dictates not only motivation, but also team selection.
That is why I simply can't be backing this season's favourites Liverpool, available at a best price of 7/2 to clinch the trophy. For the same reason why I ignored last season's 5/1 favourites Arsenal, I anticipate the Reds to have a promising league campaign, having tipped them to win the title earlier this season.
If that comes to fruition, Thursday-Sunday football could prove a major stumbling block in any sort of challenge, so we could see plenty of rotation and a sacrifice of this competition for the betterment of their chances domestically. It nearly worked in Arsenal's favour last season.
The other big factor that comes into my thinking is the likelihood of winning the group. This is because if you win your group, you skip a round - the first round where Champions League dropouts enter the competition. Not only do you therefore avoid playing a potentially strong team straight off the bat, but the group winners - perhaps more importantly - get two Thursdays off.
In this current day and age, where playing schedules are manic, any respites have to be seen as huge positives.
That's one reason why I'm happy to pass on second favourites Brighton. Drawn in a tough Group B alongside Marseille and Ajax on their very first venture into European football could catch them out, even if I do think they're the best team in the group.
I also have reservations about their defensive vulnerabilities against astute and experienced teams if they advance to the knockouts. There remains a naivety about Roberto De Zerbi's men, especially in a competition like this. At 14/1 they are too short in my opinion, though that could change if they start to tighten things up.
Last season's runners-up, and a team selected on these pages, ROMA are the first selection TO WIN THE EUROPA LEAGUE at a general price of 16/1.
The Italians tick all of the above boxes. They won't be challenging for the title in Serie A, while they face a real uphill battle to even finish in the top four given the strength shown already by Inter, Juventus, Napoli and Milan, meaning this competition could be their only realistic opportunity to qualify for the Champions League.
They have been drawn in a very generous group alongside Slavia Prague, Swiss side Servette and Moldovan outfit Sheriff Tiraspol, so should have no issues topping Group G and avoiding the first knockout round.
The added extras are the coach and the additions made to the squad.
Jose Mourinho, love him or hate him, is still a European knockout football expert. In his two seasons at Roma, he has won the Europa Conference League and finished runner-up in the UEL which is a hell of an achievement.
As for their squad, the acquisition of Romelu Lukaku could prove a masterstroke. Mourinho clearly loves the Belgian, having signed him for a second time following their spell together at Manchester United, with Tammy Abraham's long-term injury the main reason Roma had to bring in more firepower.
For all of his haters, Lukaku is an effective footballer who does get on the end of chances regularly. He was excellent for Inter Milan last season when netting 10 times and averaging 0.53 xG per 90 minutes, so expect a decent campaign from him.
Elsewhere I Giallorossi have added World Cup winner Leandro Paredes, Renato Sanches and Houssem Aouar to their midfield, while bringing in the talented Evan Ndicka at the back.
All in all, I think their starting XI and squad this season is better than last, and we are getting the same price about them in this competition with less depth at the top of the market given the only big name is Liverpool.
While the early Serie A table suggests they are off to a poor start, winless through three, their performances have been good, dominating the xG battle in their opening two matches before deserved defeat by Milan.
The early signs - despite results - suggest they are continuing the levels they hit last season, when ranking as the third best team in the league according to underlying data.
Villarreal come next in the betting at 20/1 but have just changed their manager after a shocking start to the season so it's hard to get them onside especially in a group with Rennes - a team who came so close to making the staking plan at 40/1.
Atalanta are also 20/1 and will be a lot of fun but there has been a lot of upheaval in the squad which is off-putting, as is their gung-ho nature - similar to Brighton - in that they could get found out later in the competition unless balance is found.
One side that isn't an issue for is WEST HAM, who proved their aptitude for knockout football when winning the Europa Conference League last season.
Granted that was against weaker opponents, but the Hammers have a better team this season than last and have started the campaign in a manner that suggests they are set to be a tough opponent for anyone across the continent.
They are 20/1 TO WIN THE EUROPA LEAGUE and I think that's a bet.
David Moyes' side tick the 'should win the group' box, drawn alongside Freiburg, Olympiakos and Serbian side TSC Bačka Topola, while they won't be contending for a top-four finish, maybe even top-six, domestically, meaning they will take this competition extremely seriously.
They appear to have spent the Declan Rice money smartly, bringing in two midfielders - James Ward Prowse and Edson Álvarez - while replacing the outgoing Gianluca Scamacca with the dynamic Mohammed Kudus. Konstantinos Mavropanos also comes in to strengthen the Hammers squad.
I don't have the same reservations around West Ham as I do Brighton when it comes to knockout football, as I do feel the solidity of a team lends itself to going far in such competitions, and the Hammers just have more consistency around their defensive process. I'm happy to chance them to go back-to-back and climb to the next rung of the European football ladder.
Also available at the same price of 20/1 - despite being as short as 9/1 in places - are BAYER LEVERKUSEN, and I like what Xabi Alonso is doing at the club.
We are also backing them TO WIN THE EUROPA LEAGUE, with the 'should win the group' box firmly ticked given they face Norwegian side Molde, Swedish club Hacken and Azerbaijani outfit Qarabag. They have, in my opinion, the easiest group of the lot.
Alonso's side are unlikely to challenge for the title, and while they have more chance than West Ham and Roma of finishing in their league's top four, they also have plenty of rivals to deal with in the shape of RB Leipzig, Dortmund, Union Berlin, Frankfurt and Freiburg.
Similarly to West Ham, Leverkusen lost an important player in Moussa Diaby, but appear to have replaced him extremely well. Nathan Tella, who lit up the Sky Bet Championship with Burnley last term is a smart signing, as is that of Jonas Hofman from Borussia Mönchengladbach in the wide positions.
More importantly, they have signed a bona fide number nine in Victor Boniface from Union Saint-Gilloise, with the Nigerian already netting for fun in the Bundesliga, and an experienced leader in midfield in Granit Xhaka.
They were trending positively last season, and the signs are they are set for another leap under talented coach Alonso, with the club having backed him by strengthening an already solid team that boasts the likes of Edmond Tapsoba and Florian Wirtz.
Leverkusen are definitely a team to watch this season, and can make a deep run in this competition.
I struggled to find value after the 20/1 mark, with Sporting Lisbon regressing after their Portuguese title success and going head-to-head with Atalanta for top spot in Group D, Real Betis massive overperformers on the data over the last two seasons and Ajax just not the team they once were.
Marseille could spring a surprise under Marcelino, who masterminded a Copa del Rey success while at Valencia in 18/19, with their attacking firepower of Pierre-Emerick Aubameyang, Joaquin Correa, Ismaila Sarr and Iliman Ndiaye, but they are in a group with Brighton so aren't guaranteed top spot.
As mentioned above, fellow Ligue 1 side Rennes nearly entered the staking plan at 40/1 but I just have my doubts around them in big games. Freiburg will be a tough out at home, but should lack the quality to go deep in the UEL, while Rangers are a worse team than when they were runners-up a few years ago.
No one at 100/1 or above made any appeal whatsoever this season, so we'll stick with three at the head of the market that should give us a good run for our money.
All odds correct as of 1700 (15/09/23)
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