In just a few short hours, Newcastle will be drawn into a matchup in the Round of 32 in the UEFA Europa League, along with a possible Round of 16 matchup. As the second place finisher in Group D, Newcastle are in a group that will be drawn against all the group winners, as well as the top 4 third place finishers in the Champions League. Because they are ineligible to be drawn against a team from their own association or their group, they have only 13 possible opponents in this draw.
I always like to handicap draws ahead of time. It doesn't seem like a sporting event if I'm not rooting for something. To that end, I've ranked the 13 teams below in order from most preferable to least. I've included their distance from St James' Park as the crow flies, since travel in between league matches is important, as well as brief profiles about how they're doing in both domestic and international leagues. If I have previewed them previously (i.e. if they were in Pots 1, 2, or 4 in the last draw), I included the previous profile as well. To me, there are four distinct groups: 3 teams that I'm actively rooting for, 2 teams that I wouldn't mind, 4 teams I would prefer not to face but could live with, and 4 teams that I absolutely want to avoid. As you can see, there's a good chance I'm going to be disappointed. How does the list break down for you?
Distance from SJP: 652 km
League form: Two-thirds of the way through the season, Genk sit fifth in the Belgian Pro League, level on points with Club Brugge. They're an offensive team in an offensive league, averaging 2 goals a match and failing to score only once through 20 games. Genk have only lost once at home and in fact have won by 3 goals or more three times there.
The Europa League so far: Genk defeated FK Aktobe Lento, then Lucerne, then won what many considered the weakest group (also containing Videoton, Basel, and Sporting CP). They didn't lose on their way to group victory, though 2 of their decisive goals came in the last five minutes.
The Bottom Line: Drawing a Belgian team would be nice. Not only is it a short flight, but there's a familiarity factor for Newcastle after traveling there during the group stage. Genk haven't really been tested, and it's possible they'll need to focus more on league play in February.
Distance from SJP: 1171 km
League form: Viktoria Plzen are the league leaders at just over the halfway point, but they have company at the top. Jablonec and Sparta Prague are hot on their heels, and each still has a home date with the league leaders remaining. A betting man might take Viktoria to finish third for a second straight year. Viktoria do have the league's best defense (0.69 goals against/game, half of them ending in clean sheets), so they still have a chance to qualify for the Champions League.
The Europa League so far: Viktoria entered the competition in the second qualifying round, making them the earliest entrant on this side of the draw. They certainly benefited from some favorable draws on the way to the group stage, but finishing above defending Europa League Champions Atletico Madrid is a nice feat. Viktoria defeated them 1-0 at home on the final day in front of a near-capacity crowd of 11,067 to clinch their spot in the top half of the draw. 7 different players contributed to the 11 goals scored in the round.
The Bottom Line: The stadium is small enough that a small traveling contingent could make the Toon feel at home. That will be big in the second leg, especially when a stingy defense means that an away goal could be the deciding factor.
Distance from SJP: 1976 km
League form: CFR Cluj sit fifth in Liga I, currently outside of European qualification, though their goal differential (+13) suggests that perhaps they've been a little unlucky along the way. They score quite a bit: 37 goals in 19 games is good for third in the league. What's impressive is that no one player has more than 6 goals on the season. Sort of the anti-Newcastle, if you will.
The Europa League so far: CFR were in Manchester United's Champions League group, and they almost made it through, if only they had a better head-to-head record with Galatasaray. The highlight of the group stage for them was a Rui Pedro hat trick at home against Braga.
The Bottom Line: Cluj need to worry about their league position if they want to get back to Europe, so maybe they'll figure Europa isn't such a great consolation prize anyway and try to get back to the top league while there still is one.
Distance from SJP: 802 km
From the group stage preview: Hannover 96 didn't drop a match at home in the Bundesliga last season. Unfortunately for them, they were 2-10-5 away from AWD-Arena, scoring 10 goals in 17 matches and losing to every team ranked 9th and above. They did reach the quarterfinals of this competition last season, but one could argue that they received some very favorable draws on the way.
League form: 63 goals have been scored in matches featuring Hannover 96. Unfortunately for them, 32 have come from their opponents, good for next to last in the league. They've recorded 3 clean sheets, all against teams in the bottom 4. They've been unable to defend their sterling home record as well - the current record is 5-2-2, and they still have home dates left with 5 teams above them in the table (they're currently 11th).
The Europa League so far: 96 qualified via a 7th place finish in the Bundesliga and entered in the third qualifying round, where they defeated St. Patrick's 5-0 on aggregate. They drew Slask Wroclaw in the next round, and true to form, scored 10 goals and conceded 4 over the two matches. Hannover edged out Levante to be the surprise winners of Group L, despite only drawing with underachieving FC Twente twice. The skeptic will point out that they benefited from an own goal and 2 penalties (including one in stoppage time) to achieve all 3 of their victories, but here we are again penalizing teams for taking advantage of the situation they find themselves in.
The Bottom Line: I hesitate to put a solid German club so high up the list, but at the end of the day a short plane ride could be huge. Like Newcastle, Hannover could be more worried about their league position than anything else by the time these games are played.
Distance from SJP: 2594 km
From the group stage preview: They don't possess the most rabid fanbase in this pot, but the supporters of this club were a big part of the reason folks were worried about racism and hooliganism at this summer's Euro. It's also a team full of Brazilians, making me wonder if I've all of a sudden stepped back into the early 90s. They've got a high coefficient because they did especially well in this competition a few years ago, but they're just not the same team anymore.
League form: Metalist, along with Dnipro Dnipro and Dynamo, are in a dogfight for second place and a berth in next year's Champions League. It is unlikely that any of these three will catch runaway leader Shakhtar, who have an amazing +43 goal differential through 18 games. For their part, Metalist are equally formidable on the road (5-2-2) as they are at home (5-1-2).
The Europa League so far: Metalist faced Dinamo Bucharest in the play-off round, defeating them 4-1 on the strength of two Jonathan Cristaldo goals. He would add one more in the group stage, but he was upstaged by Cleiton Xavier. Xavier scored four goals, all of them after the 70th minute. They won Group K thanks to head-to-head record against Bayer Leverkusen.
The Bottom Line: Their preoccupation with league position will only help their opponents in this round, and the late nature of most of their goals in the last round makes me wonder if their run of good luck is sustainable.
Distance from SJP: 2598 km
League form: Dnipro Dnipro, who sit in second place, will not be catching Shakhtar Donetsk, who have the league about as sown up as it can be at this point of the season. Dnipro have the second-best defense in the league (behind Shakhtar), conceding only 13 goals in 18 games. They're led in scoring by young Brazilian international Giuliano, who appears to be living up to his promise in his second full season in Ukraine.
The Europa League so far: Dnipro entered in the playoff round and defeated Slovan Liberec 6-4 on aggregate. The second leg was a 4-2 affair that saw the Ukrainians take two penalties while a Liberec player was sent off in a separate incident. They performed admirably in Group F play, but their finish at the top of the table was certainly helped by subpar performances from second-place Napoli. Dnipro scored 16 goals in the 6 matches, with a low total of 2.
The Bottom Line: Dnipro Dnipro are dangerous because they're comfortable slogging out a low-scoring match or keeping up in a shootout. Like Metalist, it's possible they burn a bit of energy jockeying for position in the league table, but their best players have young legs. It's at this point of the list that I start rooting against the team being drawn with NUFC.
Distance from SJP: 2291 km
League form: The 23-time champions of Liga I are once again in full control of their destiny this year after finishing a disappointing 3rd in 2011-12, a standing that resulted in the sacking of manager Mihai Stoichita. They own a 10 point lead over second-place Astra Giurgiu at just past the halfway point, and they average scoring over 2 goals per match while letting in less than 1. They're undefeated in 10 matches at home and have allowed their visitors to score just 4 goals. Forward Raul Rusescu leads the league with 17 goals; the next highest total is 11.
The Europa League so far: Steaua entered in the third qualifying round, where they defeated Spartak Trnava 3-1 on aggregate after opening with a shocking 0-1 defeat at home. They drew FK Ekrenas Panevezys in the next round, a team that may be easier to defeat on the pitch than to spell correctly, and they won that matchup handily as well. They were drawn into the relatively easy Group E, where they went 3-2-1. Their lone loss came against Stuttgart when advancement to the next round had already been assured, but it was a 5-1 drubbing at home.
The Bottom Line: Another team that can focus completely on Europa. Their stumbles in the last round could be interpreted by some to be cracks in the armor. It's still a long flight (though not the longest in this group, I'll grant) and that home record is not to be taken lightly.
Distance from SJP: 2684 km
League form: Olympiacos are dominating the Greek Super League, as you might expect, and if they stay on track, they'll win their 40th title this year. They're undefeated so far and are the best in the league both at home and away. They've also got the best offense, though they're slacking a bit on defense - only second. They've scored in every game and have kept 7 clean sheets (out of 15). They have the league's best scorer (Rafik Djebbour, who has scored more goals than 5 whole teams), and the best assist man (Algerian countryman Djamel Abdoun). I'm not sure there's another team in the world that dominates their league like Olympiacos does.
The Europa League so far: Olympiacos are one of the four Champions League refugees in this group, as they finished third in Group B (Arsenal's group). They were basically eliminated in Week 5, when they lost to Schalke 04 a second time. The first loss was a heartbreaker - Schalke scored just a minute after the Greek side found an equalizer, and that was all she wrote. They were able to finish third over French champs Montpelier, mostly because of the goalscoring efforts of Konstantinos Mitroglou. He scored four goals in the group stage, two of them winners.
The Bottom Line: There's a familiarity factor here, since Newcastle played Olympiacos in Greece during the preseason, but that familiarity cuts both ways. It's clear that they'll be able to focus completely on their next international opponent. That's scary stuff.
Distance from SJP: 3136 km
From the group stage preview: Rubin Kazan won their league in 2008 and 2009 and seem intent on getting their title back as they went out and got Jose Salomon Rondon this summer.now calls Kazan home, so it might be fun to sing at him a bit, but the travel to in between league matches doesn't seem worth the trouble.
League form: The Russian season is almost 2/3 of the way through, and Kazan sit in 7th, just one point away from qualifying for Europa once again. They're in this tournament because they won the Russian Cup last year, but they've already been eliminated this go-around. One interesting note about this team is that they only have 1 draw (through 19), even though they play a ton of close games. This season, it's been boom or bust.
The Europa League so far: Rubin entered in the group stage, and apparently the extra rest paid off, as they were able to finish ahead of Inter Milan after defeating them 3-0 at home and settling for a 2-2 draw in Italy after the hosts equalized in stoppage time. Rondon scored 4 goals over the 6 matches, meaning he's tied for third among goalscorers in the tournament despite his team's late entry.
The Bottom Line: They're so far down the list mostly because of travel time. I'm also leery of Rondon's positive influence on the squad. They appear to be motivated and have done quite well against some very good teams.
Distance from SJP: 1893 km
League form: Benfica lead Primeira Liga (it should be noted that it's still early), and though they don't have what you could call a sizable lead by any stretch, their supporting numbers are very impressive. 32 goals for and 8 against is a nice goal differential, and forward Oscar Cardozo is averaging more than a goal a game, thanks to two hat tricks. Remember Maritimo? Benfica just got done dismantling them at home, 4-1.
The Europa League so far: Benfica managed to draw with Barcelona in their last fixture of the Champions League Group Stage, but it wasn't enough, as Celtic took care of their business and defeated Spartak Moscow, sending Fraser Forster and company on to the next round and the Portuguese side down to Europa. They only managed to score in 3 of the 6 matches.
The Bottom Line: This is where the list gets dicey. If Newcastle draw any of the last four, starting with Benfica, I'll be very disappointed. Benfica are formidable, but at least Portugal is close and a familiar location for the Newcastle players.
Distance from SJP: 1126 km
From the group stage preview: Olympique Lyonnais' failure to qualify for the Champions League ended a string of 12 straight appearances in the competition, but anybody who thinks their star is falling should check again. The Soccernomics darlings still boast the ever-dangerous Lisandro Lopez and have several young players propping up the squad with strong play. Any match with them will see plenty of goals: In 2011-12 they failed to score in only 7 league matches and kept just 5 clean sheets.
League form: At 10-5-2, Lyon currently lead Ligue 1 on goal differential, which is a massive +14 through 17 matches. They've scored 30 goals (2nd in the league) and conceded 16 (4th in the league), tallying 6 clean sheets. At home, where they'll play the second leg, they are 7-1-1, and they are +12 in those matches. Right now they are about 4:1 to win the league in betting houses, but they'll have to hold off advances from OM and PSG (who are the betting favorites and have a +20 GD). There's a small chance they could punt the Europa League to focus on their title chase, but counting on a layout at this stage of the competition is a fool's errand.
The Europa League so far: OL's domestic cup win meant they entered the competition in the group stage. Lyonnais blew through the weak Group I easily, winning 5 and drawing only 1 (with runner-up Sparta Prague). They scored 14 goals in the 6 games, conceding 8. On one hand, you could say that they haven't really been tested. On the other, two of their wins were achieved in the last 5 minutes. Those don't count any less, but it's not as if they've run away from their competition.
The Bottom Line: Hey, France is close! Perhaps Hatem Ben Arfa's old loyalties will provide some extra motivation for him.
Distance from SJP: 2730 km
From the group stage preview: They're here because they lost in the knockout round of the Champions League this week, and everybody is shocked that the city is still standing. There's a reason they were first in the Turkish Super Lig in both attack and defense at home. I'm afraid that half our squad might not make it back home if NUFC were to draw them.
League form: Fener lost to rival Galatasaray this weekend, so they now sit 5 points out of first - tied with Antalyasp' and Besiktas. If they finish there, it will be a disappointment, but they still have a date with Gala at home, where they are 6-1-1.
The Europa League so far: Fenerbahce dropped into the group stage from the Champions League, and they had no trouble winning Group C. They drew their opening match with Marseille before winning 4 straight, only conceding a match to second place Borussia Monchengladbach when their place was secure. Five different players scored for them in the six games, including familiar faces Dirk Kuyt and Moussa Sow.
The Bottom Line: That second leg in Turkey would be brutal. By the way, they're a pretty good team, too.
Distance from SJP: 1778 km
League form: S.S. Lazio sit fourth in Serie A, level on points with Napoli but well behind in goal differential. Their strength is goal prevention - just over one goal conceded per game, and 7 clean sheets through 17 matches. As you might expect, they defend their home turf well (7-1-1), but that success hasn't translated away from Stadio Olimpico (3-2-3). Fortunately for them, most of their remaining away dates are against the bottom half of the table, so one might expect that their best days are ahead of them.
The Europa League so far: Lazio topped Tottenham Hotspur's group by drawing with Spurs twice and taking care of business the rest of the way. Aside from our English brethren, they haven't played anybody of significance, but there's something to be said about soundly defeating the teams you're supposed to beat.
The Bottom Line: As it turns out, the fans that stabbed the Spurs fan in November were loyal to Roma, not Lazio, but the whole incident (and the implied anti-semitism) should tell you all you need to know about this club, if you weren't aware already. I'd rather draw a team of the world's best XI and play them way over on the International Date Line the day before an important league match than have Newcastle's players have to deal with playing in front of that crowd.