The Europa League has grown in importance in the last few seasons, with major clubs holding the competition in higher regard. Now, AC Milan is officially back in the competition and the team seems poised to chase the trophy. However, Milan’s draw for the group stage was anything but kind. LOSC Lille, Celtic FC, and AC Sparta Praha stand in the way of the Rossoneri’s progression to the round of thirty-two. This is a tall task, but one that Milan can certainly overcome. Prior to the October 22nd start of the group stage, it is important to understand how these three teams play and just how good they are.
I will be using FBref data for Lille because I have it, and WyScout data for the other two teams. My preference is to use FBref as my primary data source, but as of now they only cover the top five leagues in Europe.
Lille was a truly horrifying offensive force in the 2018/19 season. Nicolas Pépé, Rafael Leão, Jonathan Bamba, and Jonathan Ikoné formed the third most dangerous attack in France. Their success facilitated Pépé’s and Leão’s moves to Arsenal and Milan, respectively. In 2019/20, Lille’s form sank and they had fallen to fourth in the table when Ligue 1 ended leaving ten Lille matches unplayed. Their star signing from the 2019 summer transfer window, Victor Osimhen, came and left, but the team has stayed strong. This has been the story of Lille. They provide youngsters the space to shine and then move them on to new clubs. This has led to intense roster turnover, but never collapse. Currently, Lille has a young core of Jonathan David, Renato Sanches, Domagoj Bradarić, Boubakary Soumaré, Xeka, Bamba, Ikoné, and Zeki Çelik. While this group does not have the sheen as Milan’s youngsters, they can all inflict their will on a match.
Currently, Lille is in second in France with four wins and two draws. Their expected statistics have been more fine than elite this season. They rank sixth in xG for, xG differentia and xG against total. Generally, you would expect a team in second to be elite in one or two of these three statistics when in a top-three position. However, Lille has been beating teams without annihilating them. That means a small xG differential and low xG totals. Tactically, Lille plays a 4-4-2 that looks to trap the ball wide defensively. Their wingers will rotate between a line with their strikers and midfielders to provide attacking width or passing outlets. Their two forwards work in a support and traditional striker tandem. Lille have not reinvented soccer with this formation, but their structure lets them take advantage of their speed and passing range. Milan has the midfielders and fullbacks to shut down their attack, but do not underestimate the French team. These fixtures could be close. However, I think that Lille finishes second in the group.
2020-2021 Ligue 1 xG Difference Leaders— ⚽️FBref.com⚽️ (@fbref) October 6, 2020
Paris S-G (9.1)
Scotland! I love the Scots! I am probably pretty Scottish myself. It pains me not to root for them. Celtic dominated their Premiership in 2019/20. They won the league by thirteen points and led in xG for totals for the season. The Celts have been the ‘top dog’ in Scotland since 1997 and have won fifteen titles since 2000. We might complain about the dominance of Juventus for FC Bayern Munich, but this level of domination is unprecedented. Now, Celtic has some competition in the league. Rangers FC, their bitter rivals, have shown some fight. As an aside, the Old Firm Derby is seriously awesome and one of the more fun games every season (the link is a COPA 90 derby days video). Hopefully, we see fans in the stands at Celtic Park or Ibrox stadium soon.
In 2020/21, Celtic have not looked like the tough Scottish side that they have in the path. Now, they are still in second, but they have almost surrendered an xG against a game. Offensively, they have slipped behind Rangers, but they are still in second in the Premiership. This suggests a team slipping from their perch. The Celts are still a formidable opponent, but the lack of control they have imposed on this season would be concerning to any fan. Do not count them out of a top-two finish, but I would be surprised if they challenged for the top spot in the group.
Also, a twitter user named xG Data tracks Scottish Premiership Games. I am including a link here. I looked through them earlier today and I liked the data.
"I didn't realise how big it is until I played for Celtic"— Sky Sports Scotland (@ScotlandSky) October 11, 2020
Former Celtic winger @Scotty_Sinclair told @SoccerAM joining the Scottish club was one of the best moves he made early in his football career pic.twitter.com/IYHRmWY8h9
AC Sparta Praha
The team I know the least about. After some research, I have learned something that is true for most Eastern European giants; the team was untouchable before the 1970s. Sparta Praha has a proud history of supplying Czechia with their national team players. Three of their core players helped the Czechoslovakian national football team finishes second in the 1962 World Cup. So, that is a cool history. They might not have the recent history of the teams above, but there are deep roots to Sparta Praha. I respect these roots.
In recent Sparta Praha history, they have been a top-four team in Czechia for the previous two seasons. Currently, they are leading the league. However, they are third in xG for and fifth in xG against and are in third for expected points. While the Czech league is not ranked much below the Scottish league (ELO Rankings, link provided), Sparta Praha does not have the same quality as Celtic. I have Praha as the fourth-best team in this group, but I would not take them lightly. This team has a real ‘grenade’ feel to them. Dropping points in the Czechia could be the difference between winning the group and finishing third.
This is 17-year-old AC Sparta Praha winger Adam Hložek.— Scouted Football (@ScoutedFtbl) April 28, 2020
He is one game shy of 50 first team appearances for the Czech club and has eight assists in all competitions this season. Here are just three of them. https://t.co/ey880ZiDrm
I rate Milan as the group winner. Anything less would be concerning. Millan’s opponents in Group H all competed in Europe last year, so they bring some experience playing on Thursday nights. Every game will be a test of the Rossoneri, and there are going to be tricky moments. Milan will have to approach in top form.