There is a Nordic location for the resumption of our Europa League campaign. Club historian Rick Glanvill and club statistician Paul Dutton preview the Round of 32 opener…
Just what the doctor ordered: a midweek getaway to a beautiful part of Scandinavia. Hopefully the only reminders of Manchester will be the sky blue shirts of the hosts and the presence in the dugout of ex-City favourite, Uwe Rosler.
Tonight Chelsea are in the charming hometown of fey 1990s rockers The Cardigans, with the club and supporters still perhaps thinking ‘Erase/Rewind’ after Sunday, a result so unpalatable it might even find a place in Malmo’s Disgusting Food Museum.
We have Ricardo Carvalho to thank for tonight’s location, where it can slip well below freezing in February but is currently milder than usual. Our popular former defender drew the Round of 32 ball that matched Chelsea with Sweden’s most successful outfit, who are also known as the Blues (di Blae). The match is sold out.
The Swedish league campaign is strung across the summer, so 2017 champions Malmo are presently in pre-season 2019 mode (they finished third in 2018). Their coach Rosler recently flew his squad out to Marbella for 10 days’ warm-weather training and while there they have played a few friendly matches against fellow Europa League participants.
Russian side Krasnodar, who were runners-up to Sevilla in Europa League Group J, beat Malmo 2-0, both late goals, then drew 1-1. Ukrainians Dynamo Kiev, winners of Group K ahead of Rennes, played out a 0-0 draw with the Swedes last Friday. Rosler believed his team showed clear improvement during the trip and was happy with their first clean sheet in five games.
This is di Blae’s 15th match in Europe since mid-July, but they are novices in the knockout phase of this competition. Still, creditable home and away group wins against Besiktas – third in Turkey’s Super Lig – secured the Swedes’ passage, and they went through the stage undefeated on home soil. No Swedish side has so far reached the last 16 of this competition.
Malmo are playing their first competitive match for 63 days.
— Key stat
Chelsea’s group stage performance was near-perfect, with points dropped only in the last game at Vidi in the dead rubber of Group L.
Malmo finished second in Group I behind Genk, runaway leaders in the Belgian league.
Malmo forward and captain Markus Rosenberg was sanguine about facing the 2013 winners of this competition. ‘We've got nothing to lose,’ he said. ‘They’re one of the most talked-about clubs in Europe. Had it been up to me, I would gladly have taken an easier opponent. At the same time, it’s fun to see how we stand up to the best.’
In fact, only six of the remaining 32 Europa League contestants appear among the ‘best’ – the top 20 European clubs according to UEFA’s rankings (Malmo are 72nd). The Blues (18th) are actually the lowest-placed of that half-dozen, the others being Sevilla (8), Arsenal (10), Shakhtar Donetsk (13), Napoli (16) and Zenit (17).
Four of the six, including Chelsea, were group winners. The other two dropped down from the Champions League group: Napoli finished third behind PSG and Liverpool, while Shakhtar were below Manchester City and Lyon.
The draw for the Round of 32 – an extra stage the Champions League does not have – pitted several of the stronger sides left in this competition against each other, including Fenerbahce and Zenit, Galatasaray and Benfica, Lazio and Sevilla, Olympiacos and Dynamo Kiev, and Sporting and Villarreal.
As the old terrace refrain liked to remind us, the Europa League is a Thursday night experience. However, Round of 32 matches actually began on Tuesday with Branislav Ivanovic’s Zenit St Petersburg travelling to Victor Moses’ Fenerbahce. Our on-loan Nigeria winger was the hosts’ star-turn and his knock-down set up the only goal of the game.
The switch to an earlier day avoided a clash with Istanbul rivals Galatasaray, who entertain Benfica tonight. Next week, Arsenal and Sevilla will host their second legs on Wednesday night so as not to coincide with home games for Chelsea and Real Betis the following evening.
It was a busy January transfer window for clubs hopeful of making it all the way to Baku, and those with a summer league tournament, for whom this is pre-season.
That category includes Malmo, whose Europa League squad now features Anel Ahmedhodzic, who was on the Nottingham Forest bench during our recent FA Cup victory, Adi Nalic (a 21-year-old forward from third-tier Landskrona), veteran goalkeeper Dusan Melicharek (from Czech second division side Zbrojovka Brno) and a 17-year-old understudy between the sticks, Lamin Sarr.
New arrivals in the knockout stage squad for Chelsea are loan striker Gonzalo Higuain and midfielder Danny Drinkwater, although the latter has not travelled to this game. Cesc Fabregas, who featured in five group stage matches, Alvaro Morata, who played four times and scored two goals, and Victor Moses, who came off the bench twice, are no longer around.
In a change to UEFA regulations, clubs are entitled to register up to three new eligible players in the January window, and it no longer matters if those players have already played in the competition for another team, or for a different club still in the Europa League.
That means Higuain is eligible to play despite already figuring for Milan in the same competition. UEFA also treats loans as sales, so on-loan Moses could face his parent club should we be drawn against his current team, Fenerbahce.
In common with all all Champions League and Europa League matches this week, a minute's silence will be observed tonight in memory of Emiliano Sala.
Having concluded a transfer from Nantes to Cardiff City, the 28-year-old forward was killed when the plane he was travelling in along with pilot David Ibbotson crashed into the English Channel on 21 January. Sala's body was formally identified on 7 February. Ibbotson has yet to be found.
Lastly, a reminder that although the Video Assistant Referee (VAR) system is now being trialled in the Champions League, it will not be used in the Europa League until the final.
THE BEST THAT CAN HAPPEN THIS EVENING…
A clear path to the next round beginning to appear ahead of the second leg at the Bridge.
Tonight’s round of 32 fixtures
BATE Borisov v Arsenal 5.55pm
Galatasaray v Benfica 5.55pm
Krasnodar v Bayer Leverkusen 5.55pm
Lazio v Sevilla 5.55pm
Olympiacos v Dynamo Kiev 5.55pm
Rapid Vienna v Inter Milan 5.55pm
Rennes v Real Betis 5.55pm
Slavia Prague v Genk 5.55pm
Celtic v Valencia 8pm
Bruges v Salzburg 8pm
Malmo v Chelsea 8pm
Shakhtar Donetsk v Eintract Frankfurt 8pm
Sporting Lisbon v Villarreal 8pm
Viktoria Plzen v Dinamo Zagreb 8pm
Zurich v Napoli 8pm
Fenerbahce 1 Zenit 0