Best and worst case scenarios: Who can Braga, Guimarães and Wolves face in the Europa League Play-off round?
Both Wolves and Guimaraes made it through to the third qualifying round of the Europa League on Thursday thanks to victories against Crusaders and Jeunesse Esch respectively, meaning that they are going to go into the hat for the Europa League play-off round draw this Monday, 5th August.
They are joined by Braga in the third qualifying round, who enter the Europa League at this stage of the competition.
While all three sides will be in the play-off draw in Nyon on Monday, they will ultimately each be required to win their respective third qualifying round ties to actually enter that stage of the competition, with Wolves facing Pyunik of Armenia, Guimaraes playing Latvian outfit Ventspils, and Braga locking horns with Danish side Brondby in the third qualifying round.
Here, we look at the potential play-off round opponents of Braga, Guimaraes and Wolves and, assuming all three manage to get through to that stage of the competition, the best and worst case scenarios for each:
Braga go into the pot as one of the thirteen seeded clubs, having the fourth highest club coefficient of every team at this stage of the Europa League. This is ultimately very good news for the Portuguese outfit, as it means that they avoid having to play against any of the supposedly harder teams.
Because of their seeding, for example, they will no longer have to play against the likes of Eintracth Frankfurt, Viktoria Plzen or Partizan, which should, on paper, make their run to the Europa League group stage easier.
Nevetheless, there are some menacing opponents potentially awaiting them in the play-off round, with Braga set to be drawn against one of the following pairs of teams:
Thun (Switzerland) or Spartak Moscow (Russia)
Molde (Norway) or Aris Thessaloniki (Greece)
Lokomotiv Plovdiv (Bulgaria) or Strasbourg (France)
Mariupol (Ukraine) or AZ Alkmaar (Netherlands)
Neftçi (Azerbaijan) or Bnei Yehuda Tel-Aviv (Israel)
There are a few potential stumbling blocks for Braga here and, while they are the seeded side, there are several unseeded teams who could cause the Minho outfit significant problems over two legs.
The one that immediately jumps out is Spartak Moscow; Braga are ultimately representing Portugal’s UEFA Coefficient by participating in European competition, and Portugal are currently embroiled in a bit of a battle with Russia to secure the all important 6th place spot in the coefficient rankings. If Portugal were to leapfrog Russia into 6th in the rankings, they would obtain an additional Champions League berth in future seasons, which would in turn increase Braga’s chances of qualifying for Europe’s most prestigious competition.
As such, a clash with Spartak Moscow would have even higher stakes than first meets the eye, and they would provide a huge test for Braga over two legs. A long trip to Russia is never ideal, and they don’t come much harder than the 2017 Russian Premier League champions either.
That’s not the only challenge Braga could face though. French clubs are always capable of providing tough opposition, and Strasbourg are no different. Having to qualify for European competition in such a high-profile footballing country that contains such depth in quality is never easy, and illustrates that Strasbourg are a team to respect.
The same goes for Ukrainian sides; many will recall that it was Ulrainian outfit Zorya that knocked Braga out of the Europa League qualifiers last year on away goals. Having to face a long trip to play against Mariupol this time around too could see history repeat itself and Braga yet again fail to reach the group stage.
However, Braga would still likely fancy their chances against their Ukrainian counterparts, and Spartak still jump out as the main team to avoid.
In terms of best-case scenario, there is one tie that seems to quite clearly represent, at least on paper, the most favourable possible opposition. And that’s one of Neftçi of Azerbaijan, or Israel’s Bnei Yehuda Tel-Aviv.
Neftci pulled off something of an upset in the previous round of qualification, knocking out Russian side Arsenal Tula, and Neftci are therefore now the lowest ranked favourite unseeded side remaining in the Europa League.
While they did well to overcome Tula in the second qualifying round, Braga would very much fancy their chances against them depsite the long trip that the tie would provide, with Neftci only ever having reached the group stage of the Europa League once, back in 2013, where they finished last in a group containing Inter Milan, Rubin Kazan and Partizan.
Bnei Yehuda Tel-Aviv, meanwhile, would also result in a long away trip for Braga, but they too have minimal pedigree in European competition, having never in their history reached the group stage of European competition, and Braga would therefore be significant favourites to brush their opponents aside.
For Braga, therefore, the best and worst case scenario seems quite simple to call.
BEST CASE SCENARIO: Neftci or Bnei Yehuda
WORST CASE SCENARIO: Spartak Moscow or Thun.
Wolves are also seeded for the play-off round, something that was guaranteed from the moment AS Roma were promoted to the Champions League and replaced with Torino.
Nevertheless, they only just made it into the seedings, coming in as the thirteenth best seeded side overall - in other words, the lowest ranked seeded side of all the clubs going into the hat.
That means that they avoid the supposedly harder teams in the draw, with the other seeded ties in their group being Legia Warsaw (Poland)/Atromitos (Greece), FCSB (Romania)/Mlada Boleslav (Czech Republic) and PSV (Netherlands)/Haugesund (Norway).
Instead, Wolves will be drawn against one of the following four pairs of teams:
Torino (Italy) or Shakhtyor Soligorsk (Belarus)
Vitoria Guimaraes (Portugal) or Ventspils (Latvia)
Austria Vienna (Austria) or Apollon Limassol (Cyprus)
Midtjylland (Denmark) or Rangers (Scotland)
Of the possible opponents, it seems fair to say that there is one opponent Wolves will be hoping to avoid, with Torino perhaps a level above the other teams in the draw.
Avoiding sides from the top 4 leagues (Spain, England, Germany and Italy) is always a benefit, and Torino is no different. While they were fortuitous to be given the opportunity to qualify for the Europa League, relying on the fact that AC Milan were kicked out of the competition for financial reasons, they will provide stern opposition to any side.
In the second qualifying round, for example, they demolished Hungarian outfit Debrecen, who were actually one of the stronger unseeded sides in that round of the competition, 7-1 on aggregate, and are fully expected to ease past Soligorsk in the third round too. They are perhaps the one team Wolves could draw who have a realistic chance of being able to knock them out of the competition.
Their last appearance in the Europa League only came in 2015 though, when they reached the round of 16 of the competition, getting out of a group containing Club Brugge, Copenhagen and Helsinki before then beating Athletic Bilbao 5-4 on aggregate in the round of 32. They then got knocked out in the second knockout round of the competition, narrowly losing over two legs to Zenit.
However, while their last appearance in this competition did come 4 years ago, it is ultimately unsurprising and doesn’t give a fair reflection of their ability compared to many sides in Europe; with such strong depth and competition in Serie A, they will always face a tough test to break into the top 6 or 7 of their domestic league to qualify for the competition.
Wolves will also likely be looking to avoid Rangers; fans will perhaps disagree, a trip to Rangers providing shorter travel and a chance to visit a large stadium with an excellent atmosphere, but from a competitive point of view, Rangers would provide a big test for any side, particularly at home.
The fact that they reached the Europa League group stage last season shows that they are a team that shouldn’t be underestimated.
In terms of the best case scenario for Wolves, neither of the other pairs of teams will likely scare the Wolves fans, all four perhaps a level below them in terms of ability.
Portugal’s own Guimaraes are the favourites to come through the tie with Ventspils, and, although Portugal fans will know that they are not a team to underestimate, they would go into the clash with Wolves as heavy underdogs should they be drawn against Wolves, and their European adventure would be expected to come to an end.
However, while any Wolves fans would likely take either of Guimaraes of Ventspils, the other tie could certainly be considered the best possible draw for Wolves, with neither Austria Vienna or Apollon Limassol expected to provide a significant challenge for Wolverhampton Wanderers.
Austria Wien would likely be considered the toughest of the two though, having qualified for the Europa League group stage on the last two occasions, though they failed to make it out of their group on either attempt.
BEST CASE SCENARIO: Austria Wien or Apollon Limassol
WORST CASE SCENARIO: Torino or Soligorsk
Unlike both Braga and Wolves, Guimaraes face the daunting prospect of being unseeded for the draw, failing to be one of the top 13 sides in terms of the club coefficient ranking - in fact, assuming all the favourites win their respective ties, of all 13 unseeded clubs, Vitoria are actually considered to be the second worst team of all, only above Azerbaijan’s Neftci Baku in the rankings.
Guimaraes, should they beat Ventspils in the third qualifying round, will therefore have to face one of the tougher sides in the draw as a result, and know that they will face one of the following:
PSV (Netherlands) or Haugesund (Norway)
Wolverhampton Wanderers (England) or Pyunik (Armenia)
FCSB (Romania) or Mlada Boleslav (Czech Republic)
Legia Warsaw (Poland) or Atromitos (Greece).
As was the case with Wolves, it seems fair to say that there are two sides Guimaraes will be looking to avoid in the draw on the 5th August, while the other two pairs of sides would be far more favourable.
The first side that they will be looking to avoid is, of course, Wolves. Having come 7th in the English Premier League last season, Nuno’s side have shown that they have the capabilities to get results against even the best sides in world football, and they could be deemed a level above 6 of the other 7 teams that are going into the hat that Guimaraes can face.
Despite the fact that they were playing in the English Championship two seasons ago, the progress they have made during that time has been clear to see, and the Champions League pedigree players they currently boast in their ranks confirm that they are a team to fear.
Few sides will know that better than Guimaraes, who are well aware of the quality the likes of Patricio, Moutinho, Neves and Jota possess.
The other side Guimaraes will be looking to avoid are PSV. The Dutch outfit were in the Champions League last season and, although they finished bottom of their group, to say that it was a challenging group would be an understatement, drawn with Barcelona, Tottenham and Inter Milan. They even picked up a draw against each of the latter two clubs, one of which was, of course, the eventual Champions League runners-up.
They would go into a clash with Guimaraes as overwhelming favourites, and are very much expected to get through their clash with Haugesund, who earned a surprise victory over Sturm Graz in the previous round.
Ultimately, PSV are certainly a team that Guimaraes will be hoping to avoid.
The other two potential ties are far from easy either, though they would certainly prove far more favourable than either of Wolves or PSV. The favourites to come out of their respective ties are FCSB (Steaua Bucharest) and Legia Warsaw. Both have proven themselves in European competition over the years, and would also provide a real test for Guimaraes, though the Portuguese would still fancy that they have a chance against either of them.
Indeed, neither of them have actually reached the group stage of European competition for at least a couple of years now, FCSB having not done so since 2014, failing to get past the play-offs of the Europa League on any occasion since then, while Legia Warsaw haven’t made it to the group stage of European competition since 2017, when they qualified for the Champions League group stage.
That year, Legia actually finished 3rd in their group, above Sporting CP, showing that they can cause problems for Guimaraes. Nevertheless, a lot can change in just two seasons and, last year, they failed to get past the Europa League 3rd qualifying round, falling to a shock defeat at the hands of Luxembourg outfit Dudelange. That suggests that they are not the same team of two years ago, and Guimaraes could more than match them on any given day.
While FCSB are expected to overcome Mlada Boleslav, Legia could stumble against Greek side Atromitos. However, they too should be beatable, having never reached the group stage of the Europa League before, always going out in the play-off round or earlier.
BEST CASE SCENARIO: Legia Warsaw or Atromitos
WORST CASE SCENARIO: Wolverhampton Wanderers or Pyunik.