The group stages of the UEFA Europa League kicked off on Wednesday as 32 teams from across the continent go head-to-head in eight groups to advance to the knockout stages of the tournament.
While the Champions League had a much underwhelming start – with both Cristiano Ronaldo’s Manchester United and Lionel Messi’s Paris Saint-Germain having a disappointing start – the Europa League was much more entertaining.
Real Betis’ win against Celtic was the main highlight of the night, while Napoli stole Leicester City’s joy with a similar comeback in the second half.
Let’s take a look at the talking points from Match Day 1 of the UEFA Europa League.
NAPOLI MAKE A LATE COMEBACK
Leicester City were outplayed by Napoli throughout the night at the King Power Stadium. But going into the half-time break, they looked comfortable to bag three points from their opening fixture.
The Italian club are the main rivals for Leicester in the tournament. Apart from being placed in the same group, Napoli are also the favourites to win the tournament outright along with the Foxes.
Both teams deserved a place in the Champions League but they missed out due to a late surge by rival clubs and a slack season in the middle.
The Partenopei started the game on a menacing note with Victor Osmihen testing Kasper Schmeichel just three minutes into the game. An early goal by Ayoze Perez in the ninth minute gave Leicester the cushion to get away with blunders, and Napoli worked hard to level the scores.
A second goal in the 64th minute by Harvey Barnes extended the lead for the hosts and it looked like a comfortable win for the tournament favourites.
But Napoli quickly regrouped led by their outstanding striker Victor Osmihen. The Nigerian quickly reduced the lead five minutes later, giving Napoli a fighting chance.
Matteo Politano’s cross from the right was converted by Osimhen once again in the 87th minute as he leapt above Caglar Soyuncu and nodded into the net from five yards.
A red card to Wilfred Ndidi in stoppage time for a second offence gave more worries for the Foxes as a hapless Brendan Rodgers saw his night go from joy to disbelief.
Both sides have a lot of introspection left to do if they are to keep up the hunt for the trophy, especially with the introduction of the newer format.
With Legia Warsaw registering a 3-0 victory over Spartak Moscow, both teams need to win their next fixtures to qualify comfortably for the knockout rounds.
REAL BETIS STEAL THE SPOTLIGHT
Real Betis scored four times in a span of 21 minutes at home to record a stunning win against Celtic and steal the spotlight in the first round of the Europa League. Ange Postecoglou’s men were the better side for much of the first half – dominating possession and regularly making forays into the box.
Albian Ajeti was the first to score in the 13th minute, followed by Josip Juranovic’s penalty to stretch their lead to two. Betis then preyed on defensive vulnerabilities in the Celtic lineup as Juan Miranda and Jimenez Juanminotched back-to-back goals to level the scores in the first half.
The start of the second half saw Borja Iglesias give the visitors a lead just five minutes in, while Junami scored his second three minutes later.
A late flourish from Celtic as Anthony Ralston powered home a header from David Turnbull’s delivery off a free-kick three minutes before closing time, but it was too late for the Scottish side as Real Betis took home three points from the thriller.
WEST HAM UNITED SINK DINAMO ZAGREB
West Ham’s foray onto the European stage after a long absence has started off with a spectacular 2-0 win over Croatian champions Dinamo Zagreb.
David Moyes’ men looked organised and efficient on their first away tour at the international level, with a maturity and composure that would put the ‘Super League’ clubs to shame.
In contrast, the Croatian champions — who were playing on the European stage for the 16th consecutive season — looked like novices unable to figure out what to do against an organised onslaught.
Kevin Theophile-Catherine’s back-pass gifted Michail Antonio his first goal in the Europa League as the Hammers imposed themselves on Dinamo right from the start. Declan Rice and Tomas Saucek were relentless in the midfield, pushing the ball forward and not allowing any opportunity for Dinamo Zagreb’’s attackers.
There were flashes of brilliance from Mislav Orsic and Bruno Petkovic, but they were prevented from coming anywhere near the goal.
West Ham doubled their lead with a goal from Declan Rice in the 53rd minute, giving them room to prevent a late but expected comeback from Dinamo Zagreb.
But the threat never came to pass as Damir Krznar’s men finished the game without a single shot on target.
The only complaint from David Moyes was that they could not make more out of their domination of the game and it speaks volumes about their confidence heading into the tournament.