DAVID SMITH - Friday, August 27, 2010
Friday afternoon saw groups set for the Europa League, giving both Sacha Kljestan and Jozy Altidore relatively straightforward paths as they hope to navigate to the knockout stage.
Both of the Americans expected to participate in their teams' campaigns were fortunate to avoid such European heavyweights as Juventus, Sevilla, Liverpool and holders Atlético Madrid.
Kljestan and Anderlecht landed in the group stage courtesy of their Champions League play-off loss to Serbian team Partizan Belgrade, and as a result were grouped with Russian team Zenit St. Petersburg, AEK Athens and Croatians Hajduk Split.
2008 UEFA Cup winners Zenit are clear favorites to top Group G as they are enjoying a strong campaign in the Russian Premier League that has them at first place just past the midway point, likely leaving the remaining teams to battle out for second place and a spot in the final 32.
Anderlecht and Zenit meet in the opening game on September 16 in Brussels for a match which could set an early tone for the group.
The Purple & White also have the advantage of hosting the final group game as well, a December 16th matchup against Hajduk Split.
Altidore and Villarreal flew through to group play on the strength of their 7-1 aggregate win over Dnepr Mogilev, and were rewarded with a Group D draw for which they must be considered clear favorites.
In addition to Belgian third-place team Club Brugge, Greek team PAOK Thessaloniki and Croatian champions NK Dinamo Zagreb round out their group, giving six games with a fairly consistent, if not unspectacular level of competition.
Even though their first appearance in European competition occurred after the turn of the 21st century, Villarreal have had great success both in the Champions League as well as the Europa League and its predecessor the UEFA Cup as they have reached the knockout round on every occasion in which they have entered either competition.
They will begin and end their campaign on the road, playing their first game in Croatia against Dinamo Zagreb and will hope to already be qualified for the round of 32 when they head to Club Brugge in mid-December.
On-loan Aris Thessaloniki midfielder Freddy Adu seems to be a forgotten man at his club, and will likely not set foot on the field for any of his team's games in what could be considered the toughest overall group of the competition.
In addition to having last year's Europa League champions Atlético, Group B also contains a tough Bayer Leverkusen squad which has been boosted in the offseason with the arrival of former Germany captain Michael Ballack, and Norwegian team Rosenborg BK, who are not to be taken lightly as they are currently still undefeated 22 games into their domestic season.
The first round of games will take place on September 16th, with the six-game group stage completed three months later.
Europa League group stage draw
FC Aris Thessaloniki
Club Brugge KV
NK Dinamo Zagreb
Zenit St. Petersburg