Newcastle United and 47 other clubs will participate in the Europa League Group Stage draw in just 5 1/2 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.
Basel won the Swiss Super League last season going away. They lost only 4 matches and finished first in goals scored and second in goals conceded. They went on a 26 game unbeaten streak, which was only broken when they clearly relaxed in the final two matches. They were the class of Switzerland, is what I'm getting at. Lest you think that this is akin to being the tallest midget, recall that they reached the Round of 16 in the Champions League last season, beating Bayern Munich in the first leg before being blown out in the return fixture. They're very experienced in international competition and can clearly focus on this tournament and still do just fine in their league.
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.
Panathinaikos are a strong defensive team, as you might expect, but they are capable of scoring the rock as well, averaging 1.8 goals a game in 2011-12 (2.2 at home). Their number 9 shirt Toche scores a goal about every other game. If you're thinking about underestimating Greek teams because Newcastle slipped past Atromitos, don't.
Los Leones were the runners up last season and qualified this time around by finishing second in the Copa del Rey. Their 10th place finish in La Liga last year and an exceptionally slow start this year seem to suggest that they might be a favorable opponent, but over the last couple of years they've developed a reputation as a team that can and will rise to the occasion. They won their group last season and eliminated Manchester United on the way to the title match.
This Danish side simply doesn't concede goals. They finished second in the league last year by just 2 points. This season they've added some significant young talent and are already on their way to taking back the title that they've won 8 times this century (they finished second the other 3 years). Copenhagen have had European success in the past, reaching the Round of 16 in the CL just 2 years ago.
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.
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. Obafemi Martins now calls Kazan home, so it might be fun to sing at him a bit, but the travel to Russia in between league matches doesn't seem worth the trouble.
Napoli had a better season in the Champions League last year than they did in Serie A, but they also managed to hoist the Italian Cup. If they lose Edinson Cavani to a transfer today, they look a little more vulnerable, but there are still plenty of teams in this pot that I would rather see in the draw. This is the team that survived last season's Group of Death, sending Manchester City down to Europa. No thanks.
Udinese finished third in the Italian league last year, conceding less than a goal a game. They were kicked down to Europa after losing to Braga in the Champions League play-off round on penalties, a tough fate indeed. Now they're forced to sit home and watch Braga play in one of the weakest CL groups. This summer they sold off some of their better players, so it could be argued that they're at a lower point than they have been in some time.
Here's a point of reference: Last year FC Bruges were drawn into Birmingham City's group, playing them to a 2-2 draw and losing to them 2-1. Totally unrelated: Bjorn Vleminckx is the most awesome name I've had the pleasure of reading today.
Hapoel Tel Aviv
If you think the Home Grown Player rule for English clubs is restrictive, try Israel's on for size: Each team may only field 5 foreign players. Much like Metalist Kharkiv and Fenerbahce, searching for the name of this club on Youtube will produce some...interesting results.
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.
If pot one is quality from top to bottom (more or less), pot two is a complete grab bag. The team that Newcastle are drawn with from this pot will make or break the group for them. There are 4 teams that I'd love to avoid just because of off-the-pitch concerns: Metalist Kharkiv, Fenerbahce, Hapoel Tel Aviv, and Rubin Kazan. More than that, drawing Napoli or Udinese could be a disaster on the pitch where it counts. My preferred team would be Club Brugge hands down, while Hannover 96, Athletic Bilbao, and Panathinaikos would be just fine as well.