The Europa League race is closing on the home stretch, and the clear frontrunners are coming into focus as the round of 16 gets underway on Thursday.
Household names have already fallen by the wayside as the likes of Leicester City, Lille and Celtic each failed to reach this stage, with a selection of underdogs once again emerging ahead of a climactic finish. The English trio of Manchester United, Tottenham Hotspur and Arsenal are the leading favorites, in that order, but the Europa League has a habit of not always abiding by the script.
Sevilla came back to edge their noses in front of Champions League dropouts Inter Milan in last year’s final, winning their fourth crown in seven seasons. In fact, the ‘higher-seeded’ club has lost in six of the last eight finals contested between a Europa League qualifier and an outfit coming from Europe’s first-tier tournament.
The sportsbooks have judged which giants look most fanciable at this stage, but those predictions leave room for a particularly promising group of sleepers among the field.
All odds provided courtesy of William Hill.
Europa League Betting Favorites
Manchester United (+300)
One of only three teams to beat the Premier League leaders this term, Manchester United couldn’t have hoped for better preparation ahead of the Europa League last 16 than a derby win over rivals City.
The Red Devils rallied to clinch a resounding 2-0 win at the Etihad Stadium in confident fashion, ending City’s record 21-game winning streak while securing a fourth straight clean sheet:
United kept back-to-back clean sheets en route to beating Real Sociedad 4-0 over two legs in the round of 32, although Serie A high-flyers AC Milan make for more difficult opposition in the next stage.
Winners of this competition under Jose Mourinho in 2017, the Premier League’s most winningest outfit is back at +300 odds as they look to repeat the feat under Ole Gunnar Solskjaer.
Tottenham Hotspur (+350)
Speaking of “The Special One,” Mourinho may well consider it a priority to add a second Europa League title to his collection (third if we include his UEFA Cup win with Porto in 2003). Tottenham are by no means guaranteed to finish among the Premier League’s top four this term, and a last-16 matchup opposite Dinamo Zagreb is about as good as they could have hoped for.
Mourinho is proven in knockout-stage soccer despite what critics may say of his recent reputation, and the rise of Gareth Bale has given the team a boost at a critical point in the campaign:
Aided by five strikes courtesy of Wales’ talisman, Spurs have scored 13 goals in their past four outings and boast one of the most fearsome forward lineups left in the Europa League. Carlos Vinicius is the highest scorer left in the competition with six goals thus far, and he may have to be content as Tottenham’s third-string striker at this point:
The north Londoners are only just behind leaders United in the odds and have all the motivation to concentrate efforts in Europe, seeking their first European honors in almost 40 years.
Another club from England’s capital but with even more reason to win big on the continent this season, Arsenal will first have to get revenge over a familiar face in Olympiacos if they’re to advance.
It was the Greek Super League champions who ejected the Gunners from the Europa League’s round of 32 last season, making for an uncomfortable last-16 draw. Arsenal came good with a 3-2 second-leg win to advance past Benfica in the previous round, but with two clean sheets in their last 11 games, the team looks anything but invincible:
Mikel Arteta is still finding his feet in these situations as a first-team coach, with a little more than one year of senior managerial experience under his belt. There could be value in Arsenal’s +700 odds given they featured in the 2019 Europa League final (a 4-1 loss to London rivals Chelsea), but it’s also easy to spot the factors that make them look more brittle than some peers.
Europa League Betting Dark Horses
At almost three times the price of outright favorites United, it’s the team that finished as runners-up to the Red Devils in that 2017 final, Ajax, who look like the best bet among the outsiders.
Erik ten Hag wasn’t with the club for that loss in Stockholm, Sweden, but he has since taken Ajax to a Champions League semi-final and has them on course for a second Eredivisie title in three seasons.
Yet again, the Godenzonen have promoted talent from the academy and bought well to supplement their side after sales of stars such as Hakim Ziyech, Donny van de Beek and Sergino Dest. The clubs is still making major profit this term after purchasing the likes of Mohammed Kudus, Antony, Davy Klaassen and Sebastien Haller to replenish their squad.
Even Ajax have proved fallible, however, after star frontman Haller was left out of their Europa League squad following his move from West Ham United:
Still, a 20-match unbeaten streak leading into the round of 16 poses very positive omens for their chances, as does the fact they beat Ligue 1 leaders Lille both home and away in the last stage. Swiss representatives Young Boys present a potential trip hazard after they ousted Bayer Leverkusen in the previous round, but Ajax’s reliance on style over select stars puts them in good stead.
AC Milan (+1100)
A trip to Old Trafford is something very few clubs will have envisioned for their dream last-16 tie, last of all AC Milan, who have lost their last two visits to Manchester United’s ground (2007, ’10).
That being said, the Red Devils have looked altogether more human than usual at the Theatre of Dreams this season and recorded each of their four league losses on home soil. In similar style, the Rossoneri have done their best work on the road of late and won at least six more points than any other Serie A outfit away from home this term (34 of their total 56):
Milan look like a monolith reborn under Stefano Pioli, and it wasn’t long ago the current Serie A runners-up held the summit as their own. They’ll hope to recapture the spirit of the 2005 Milan team that emerged 1-0 victors in the club’s maiden trip to Old Trafford, with this set to be their first-ever meeting in Europe’s secondary tournament.
Former United frontman and current Rossoneri top-scorer, Zlatan Ibrahimovic, will be disappointed to miss the first leg due to injury, with his involvement in the return fixture one week later also in question.
Expect to see Milan’s +1100 odds drop considerably if they beat United, with the second-place sides of England and Italy poised for an early battle between potential champions-in-waiting.
Shakhtar Donetsk (+2800)
One potential sleeper with substantial odds at this stage is Shakhtar Donetsk, whose +2800 touting looks somewhat overpriced for a team boasting two wins over Real Madrid this season.
Admittedly, what started out as a fairytale Champions League group stage ended in a more dreaded manner thanks to successive losses against Borussia Monchengladbach. However, the reigning champions of Ukraine nonetheless boast a team capable of surprising last-16 opponents AS Roma if the Giallorossi are at all complacent.
Shakhtar are also blessed to have had an extensive winter break after a particularly demanding 2020, and it’s at this point of the campaign that relief could pay dividends for the Miners. The gulf in class was clear when they beat Maccabi Tel Aviv 3-0 on aggregate during the round of 32, in which the Brazilian-born trio of Patrick, Tetê and Júnior Moraes provided the goals:
Luis Castro led Shakhtar to the semi-finals of the Europa League last term before they fell to eventual runners-up Inter. It was the Ukrainians who lifted this title in 2009 when it was awarded as the UEFA Cup for the last time, but this could be their chance to remind Europe they’re still relevant in the silverware stakes.