Newcastle United and 47 other clubs will participate in the Europa League Group Stage draw in just 6 short hours, and we've set out to preview the 34 clubs that the Magpies could be drawn against. What follows is a very brief profile of each team, organized by pot.
Atletico have been Europa League savants over the last few years, winning in 2010 and last year as well. They finished fifth in La Liga last season, mostly on the strength of their defense. Their 15 clean sheets were second in the league last season, and they stand to benefit this time out from the presence of Thibaut Cortois, the young Chelsea goalkeeper who is on season-long loan. Last weekend Atletico dismantled Athletic Bilbao 4-0 as face of the team Falcao scored a hat trick.
Inter Milan finished a disappointing sixth in Serie A last season, conceding almost a goal and a half a game in the process. Is it a coincidence that their defense began to suffer after selling Davide Santon to Newcastle? Of course, but it's fun to pretend. Actually, their struggles probably had a more direct correlation with the departure of Samuel Eto'o, and sending Thiago Motta to PSG in January didn't help either. Still, Inter remain strong, and the only reason the Toon Army should want to draw them is so they can sing about Milan some more.
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.
Newcastle cannot draw Liverpool as they are in the same association.
Hatem Ben Arfa's former team now harbors the likes of Joey Barton and employs Romain Amalfitano's older brother Morgan. Last season they had trouble finding the net, but they're still a top team. From a competitive standpoint, I'd rather Newcastle not draw them, but the myriad storylines that a Marseilles-Newcastle matchup would produce are awful tempting.
Sporting Lisbon were an extremely well-rounded team last season, finishing 5th in goals scored and 2nd in goals allowed in Primera Liga last season. Incredibly, they kept 14 clean sheets in 30 games on the way to a fourth place finish. They're off to a slow start so far this season, and the major question surrounding the team seems to be about who can score if Ricky Van Wolfswinkel is off his game.
The team that won't sell Erik Pieters. They finished second in goals scored in the Eredivisie last season and have picked up where they left off, scoring 10 goals in 3 matches so far. They've brought back Mark van Bommel and added Mathias Jorgensen and seem determined to take back what they believe to be their rightful place at the top of the league. Perhaps their championship drought will cause them to ignore the Europa League somewhat, but this is a very formidable team. Do not want.
Newcastle cannot draw Spurs as they are in the same association.
If Leverkusen can hang onto their talented young players through the rest of today, they'll be exactly what you expect: a well-balanced team capable of winning any match by one goal. However, they've already lost Tranquillo Barnetta and a host of others, and if they don't add anybody, they look as vulnerable as anybody in this pot.
Bordeaux might not have the name recognition of OL or OM, but I submit that they may be the most dangerous of the French teams in this pot. They have a pair of Malian players (Cheick Diabate and) that I really admire and they boast a top defense, conceding just over a goal per game in 2011-12. It seems that any game with them is destined for a 1-1 or 1-0 score, and those make me exceptionally nervous.
Cheik Tiote's former team and current home of Newcastle transfer target Douglas. Luuk de Jong and Ola John are both gone, replaced by younger talent. You wouldn't know it from their results so far, though - 3 wins in 3 league matches and a very convincing 4-1 extra time victory over Bursaspor yesterday to overcome a 3-1 aggregate deficit.
Stuttgart lost just 1 of their last 12 matches in 2011-12, climbing from 9th to 6th in the process. They were buoyed by the January purchase of Vedad Ibasevic, whose missed penalty against Wolfsburg on the weekend was the only thing keeping them from a positive result. Still, their struggles against the 5 teams above them (only 1 win from 10 matches) make them look like a desirable group partner compared to the other teams in the pot.
Four teams stand out to me as sides to avoid: Inter, Lyon, Atletico Madrid, and PSV. OM should probably be on that list, but I'm intrigued by the potential drama. On the other end of the spectrum, Sporting, Leverkusen, and Stuttgart seem to be most desirable, but obviously any team from Pot One should be taken seriously as an opponent.