The stakes are higher than ever in the Europa League, with the winners of the competition earning a qualifying place for next season’s Champions League for only the second time.
That should persuade English clubs Manchester United and Liverpool to take the competition seriously, although Borussia Dortmund and Napoli are currently the favourites with the bookies.
Sevilla have won the Europa League in each of the last two seasons, but the line-up looks strong, with Bayer Leverkusen, Athletic Bilbao, Fenerbahce and Valencia all having a decent chance.
The first leg of the opening Europa League knockout round takes place this week, so we’ve picked out four of the most attractive and exciting ties and named the fantasy players to look out for.
Borussia Dortmund v FC Porto
Europa League favourites Dortmund have a tricky tie against Porto first up, with Thomas Tuchel’s men coming off the back of a narrow 1-0 win against Hannover at the weekend.
Pierre-Emerick Aubameyang is without a doubt Dortmund’s star, but the striker missed the weekend victory and could be saved for the Bundesliga, with BVB trying to hunt down Bayern Munich at the top of the table. Marco Reus and Henrikh Mkhitaryan are regular scorers too.
Porto’s star man is 34-year-old goalkeeper Iker Casillas, although the brilliantly-named André André, who is valued at £6.5m on FantasyBet and Yacine Brahimi are also big threats, while striker Vincent Aboubakar scored three goals in the group stage of the Champions League.
While Dortmund will be expected to qualify the German side have lost their last two Europa League games 1-0, while Porto, who appointed José Peseiro as Julen Lopetegui’s successor in January, won the competition in 2003 and 2011. Peseiro worked with Casillas at Real Madrid.
Valencia v Rapid Vienna
Valencia coach Gary Neville was relieved after collecting a first La Liga win in 10 attempts at the weekend and that victory could kickstart the former Manchester United man’s time in Spain, with Rapid Vienna visiting the Mestalla on Thursday – which is coincidentally Neville’s 41st birthday.
Neville’s side have performed well in cup competitions despite their league problems, reaching the semi-finals of the Copa Del Rey, where they were soundly beaten 8-1 on aggregate by a Barcelona in absolutely brilliant form. Set piece specialist Dani Parejo is probably Valencia’s most intriguing fantasy player, while Rapid’s veteran attacking midfielder Steffen Hofman hit three goals from six games for his side in the Europa League’s group stage.
Rapid, who are joint top of the Austrian Bundesliga and have recorded back-to-back league wins, have not won on any of their six previous trips to Spain. Valencia lost their last three Champions League group games without scoring, with 22-year-old Paco Alcácer their main goal threat.
Villarreal v Napoli
Napoli lost their position at the top of Serie A at the weekend, but they will still be expected to triumph against Villarreal, who they have played four times before. Napoli’s Marek Hamšík could well be the fantasy player to watch, as he has scored in three of the clubs’ previous meetings, while goalkeeper Pepe Reina returns to the club he played for between 2002 and 2005.
The Italian side won all six of their group stage matches, with Dries Mertens and José Callejón scoring five goals, while Manolo Gabbiadini hit four. Omar El Kaddouri is another fantasy player to look out for as he recorded five assists in the group stage, while Napoli’s controversial coach Maurizio Sarri can also call upon Gonzalo Higuaín, who has scored 26 goals already this season.
Villarreal are unbeaten in five matches, while 31-year-old midfielder Bruno has scored seven goals from 24 appearances this season. Roberto Soldado is likely to start up front at El Madrigal.
Galatasaray v Lazio
It is over 50 years since Galatasaray lost at home to Italian opposition, but the Turkish champions have won just one of their last seven European home games. Lazio were unbeaten throughout the Europa League group stage, winning four of their six group matches.
Uruguay international goalkeeper Fernando Muslera faces his old club and he will have to keep out Lazio’s set piece specialist Antonio Candreva, who has hit 10 goals this season, as well as rising star Felipe Anderson, who has scored seven times. Lazio’s 21-year-old defender Wesley Hoedt was superb in the Europa League group stage, earning a WhoScored rating of 7.83.
Galatasaray have a blistering array of attacking talent, with Wesley Sneijder and Lukas Podolski pulling the strings for Burak Yılmaz, who has hit nine goals in 12 Süper Lig matches this season.