With this summers European Championships in France, a trip to China and an early start to the season with the Community Shield at Wembley, it’s felt like football hasn’t really stopped this year. For some teams in Europe it basically didn’t. Whilst the draw for the 2016/17 UEFA Europa League group stage took place on Friday, the tournament actually started 2 months ago for those in the 1st qualifying round at the end of June. Should any of those teams manage to make it all the way to the final, due to be hosted at Sweden’s Friends Arena in Solna, Stockholm, they’ll have been playing in the Europa League for 11 months. It’s no wonder the competition is considered so gruelling by many.
What the competition does guarantee however, is a real mix of new teams and countries (and confusion). Between the UEFA website and Wikipedia entries (1 & 2) there’s a conflict in the number of total teams that’ll be involved in this years competition, but it’s either 160 or 188; a lot. The 3 qualifying rounds and play-off whittle the number down to 48 teams in the group stage before 8 drop in from the Champions League after Christmas. It’d all seem a bit too much to understand if United hadn’t had so much involvement in the competition over the past 5 years…
The hundreds of teams hail from from 54 countries, with the likes of Liechtenstein, Andorra, San Marino and even Gibraltar contributing to the early qualifiers, Kosovo would have made it 55 if it weren’t for UEFA red tape. The week leading up to the draw gave few clues as to who the opponents drawn on Friday would be, just 16 teams were confirmed, these the cup winners or best placed non-Champions League teams from the top 12 countries in Europe. A few familiar names from the likes of Germany, Spain, Italy and France, United having played half of them previously. The real interest though, lied in the remaining lot, 22 winners from the final play-off round and 10 losers from the Champions League play-off.
The final round of games this week denied us potential trips to some of the more obscure parts of eastern Europe; gone were AEK Larnaca of Cyprus, Shkëndija of Macedonia, Partizani Tirana of Albania, Dinamo Tbilisi of Georgia, BATE Borisov of Belarus, Vojvodina of Serbia and Beitar Jerusalem of Israel (though neighbours Maccabi Tel Aviv made it through and Hapoel Be’er Sheva dropped in from the CL play-off).
Plenty of other untried countries did remain, with 21 in total represented by the 48 teams to make the group stages; Astana of Kazakhstan, and Qarabağ and Gabala of Azerbaijan the furthest trips. Europe in general has seen a number of terror related threats and attacks over the past year, close to home with Belgium and France, whilst there’s ongoing conflict within Russia, Ukraine and Turkey too. Another layer to add to potential travel plans to any of these countries, each of these having at least 2 teams in the draw.
It wasn’t all so desolate though. The likes of Sparta Prague, Dundalk of Ireland (the lowest ranked team left) and a few teams from the Netherlands made for jollier potential trips. For now though it was time to consider how feasible it’d be to make the journey for each of the 3 games against our opponents for the 2016/17 UEFA Europa League group stage; Fenerbahçe, Feyenoord, and Zorya Luhansk.
The 6 match dates were spread over 4 months and we knew each game would be on the Thursday night, so checking flight details for each destination and each date was easy enough. It was over 2 hours after the end of the draw that the fixtures were finally announced, even though teams from the same countries had already been drawn on separate sides of the draw. The complexity likely came from managing two kick off times (6pm and 8pm each day) to make for more television viewing.
Fenerbahçe – Istanbul, Turkey
The first name out of the hat was Fenerbahçe, typically it had to be a Turkish team after highlighting the issues there currently. Whilst Istanbul has itself had terror related incidents at the airport, it seems a little less hostile, especially given its a large capital which still receives a lot of tourism. I don’t think there’s too much to worry about in visiting, I travelled there a few years ago and there’d been some unrest and protests around that time but we didn’t experience any issues. Even around the football I didn’t find it as hostile as expected. Needless to say it’ll be welcoming for Robin van Persie’s return to Old Traffod.
Once the fixtures finally came out the trip to Istanbul was the 4th match day and 2nd away match, on 3rd November. Just a few weeks short of when we last played there against Galatasary in 2012. I’d checked flights for all 6 of the match days; direct were around 145 quid with a few flights with short stopovers a little bit cheaper, from 125 quid. I’m still to book my flight but a few days after the draw the prices are still similar so I should be alright. Given the situation in Turkey it’s likely that a lot of fans will skip this game, and so I can’t imagine that prices will shoot up too much. There’s still plenty of time to find a hotel there too.
Feyenoord – Rotterdam, Netherlands
The next team drawn was Feyenoord, a decent and easy trip over to Rotterdam in Holland. Last years trip to Bruges actually took us through Rotterdam on the train but with little time to stop there. The fixture was drawn for match day 1, just a few weeks away on 15th September. Although there were some direct flights to Rotterdam, a slightly cheaper and more frequent option was to fly to Amsterdam, then just a 30 minute train journey away. The flights for each match day were around 50 quid, I quickly got one for £56 when the dates were announced and this quickly shot up to well over £100 not long after. With only a few weeks to the game I still need to look around for hotels, with the option to stop in either city. I’ll likely opt for at least one night in Rotterdam as its a place I’ve never really seen, Amsterdam on the other hand is a city I’ve been to plenty of times.
Zorya Luhansk – Luhansk, Ukraine (Odessa)
And finally, the third team to be drawn brought another logistical issue with a trip to Ukraine. When we last travelled there in 2013 it was relatively stable, but the last few years have seen increased issues with Russia. Zorya are based in Luhansk, a city in the east of Ukraine and close to the border with neighbours Russia. Due to the conflict there they haven’t played at their home ground since 2014 and so our match will take place in Odessa, 550 miles to the west on the coast of the Black Sea. Whilst this makes for a much easier trip, flights are still complicated and require a change at Kiev or Istanbul, currently about 300 quid. I’m undecided on travelling for this game yet, though despite some initial concerns it does seem like it might be straightforward enough to get there. With the match due to be played as the final group game on 8th December there’s enough time to work it all out.
We know the opponents and potential travel routes and costs, but what we can’t guarantee is just how seriously United, or more importantly Mourinho, will take the competition. Competing on multiple fronts is never going to be helped by the Europa League schedule, but I’m sure I’m one of many fans who’d like to see us give it a good go (if not just for more trips after Christmas). It does, after all, remain the only major trophy that United haven’t won; 4 other English teams have, including Ipswich Town! All will be revealed when we see the line up for the first match in a few weeks time, until then it’s back to plotting the trips to Holland and Turkey, maybe even Ukraine too.