Alex Keble looks at the key talking points as four Premier League clubs start their group stage matches in the 2023/24 UEFA Europa League and Europa Conference League.
Brighton & Hove Albion v AEK Athens
Kick-off: Thursday 21 Sep, 20:00 BST
AEK Athens' last result: 1-1 draw with Olympiacos
AEK Athens' league position: 6th
Brighton & Hove Albion have never played European football before but there is no reason why their inexperience should count against them. This is a club used to punching above their weight, and after another strong start in the Premier League supporters are rightly optimistic about their prospects this week.
In the context of the group, it is a must-win encounter. According to UEFA’s coefficient rankings, Brighton start at home against the weakest team in their group, AEK Athens, so anything less than victory would put the hosts in an uncomfortable position.
Roberto De Zerbi knows the pitfalls of a slow start. He has managed in Europe only once before, with Shakhtar Donetsk in the 2021/22 Champions League, when an unexpected 2-0 defeat at FC Sheriff on Matchday One set the tone for a winless campaign and bottom place in the group.
Worryingly for Brighton fans, Shakhtar played typical De Zerbi-ball that year and were unpicked on the break. They held plenty of possession against Sheriff in both matches, with 74.7 per cent and 68.7 per cent, and against Internazionale Milano, with 57.9 per cent and 65.9 per cent. But they won only two points from those four matches, while they were far too expansive and attack-minded in a 5-0 loss at home to Real Madrid.
Nevertheless, Brighton are in a very strong position and, unlike Shakhtar moving from Ukrainian football to the Champions League, their players are used to facing Europa League quality domestically.
The rise of Brighton & Hove Albion. Our journey continues tomorrow. 💫 pic.twitter.com/7GuSbbMhJc— Brighton & Hove Albion (@OfficialBHAFC) September 20, 2023
In fact, they have arguably one of the deepest squads in the competition, or at least that’s the conclusion we must draw from a 3-1 victory at Old Trafford in which De Zerbi made six changes to his starting line-up, only one of which (Solly March) being enforced through injury.
Extra energy in the legs is an important advantage given Brighton’s high-octane and tactically demanding football – and especially when faced with opponents like Matias Almeyda’s AEK Athens, whose 1-1 draw with Olympiacos last weekend continued their unbeaten start to the Super League season.
A Marcelo Bielsa disciple, Almeyda preaches ultra-hard pressing football in the manic, man-to-man style we used to see at Leeds United, which should make for a frenetic match at the Amex Stadium that ultimately plays into Brighton’s hands.
De Zerbi likes to use possession to lure the other team forward before sprinting quickly behind the press.
His players will relish a match like this and, well-rested and in front of a raucous home crowd, will anticipate an explosive performance to start their European adventure with a bang.
Legia Warsaw v Aston Villa
Kick-off: Thursday 21 Sep, 17:45 BST
Legia Warsaw's last result: 1-1 draw with Piast Gliwice
Legia Warsaw's league position: 3rd
Since winning the European Cup in 1982 Aston Villa’s record on the continent has been underwhelming, and a source of consternation to their supporters.
They have not been in a European competition proper since 2009, when Martin O’Neill fielded a reserve team for a knock-out match against CSKA Moscow that, when lost, was widely seen as the beginning of the end of his tenure.
In fact, since reaching the European Cup quarter-finals in 1983, Villa have appeared in Europe only nine times – and failed to get past the second round in eight of those.
They are long overdue a proper European run and surely have the perfect manager with which to do it as they enter the UEFA Europa Conference League, which is now in its third season.
Unai Emery has won the Europa League four times with two different clubs (Sevilla and Villarreal), reached the final with Arsenal in 2018/19 and was a Champions League semi-finalist with Villarreal in 2021/22.
No wonder Aston Villa are widely regarded as the pre-tournament favourites to lift the trophy in May.
It’s a long road to the final, but Villa can feel confident of a good start away at Legia Warsaw on Thursday. Their opponents might be unbeaten across their first six domestic matches, but the Polish top flight is ranked as the 21st best in Europe by UEFA.
Villa, back to winning ways with a dramatic late turnaround against Crystal Palace on Sunday, should have far too much for their hosts even if Emery decides to make a few changes ahead of a tough trip to Chelsea this weekend.
Not that Villa fans will share that optimism. They have too much experience seeing their side go out early in European competition to count on three points. Then again, never in their history have Villa had a manager of such pedigree in Europe.
LASK v Liverpool
Kick-off: Thursday 21 Sep, 17:45 BST
LASK's last result: 3-1 win against Austria Klagenfurt
LASK's league position: 3rd
Liverpool have a tough decision to make.
Following six consecutive years in the Champions League, Jurgen Klopp’s side are unhappy to find themselves relegated to the second-tier competition and may see it as an unwanted distraction.
But the Europa League is a prestigious tournament in which Liverpool have a rich history, winning it on three occasions, including the famous 5-4 triumph over Alaves under the guidance of the late Gerard Houllier. They also reached the final in Klopp’s first season.
By Thursday evening, when the line-ups are released, we will know how seriously Klopp intends to take the Europa League. Liverpool can afford to make a few changes, which is surely a given to cope with the Thursday-Sunday schedule, but it is plausible Klopp will rest almost his entire starting XI.
LASK, currently third in the Austrian Bundesliga after a 3-1 win at Klagenfurt on Saturday, are no pushovers, but with Liverpool gearing up for a serious title challenge in the Premier League they could perhaps do without it.
Asked about his selection plans ahead of the match, Klopp remained tight-lipped, saying on the club website, "You will have to wait until tomorrow to have a look at the line-up", but he added: "We are here to compete, not to give opportunities, for nobody: not for ours and not for them."
One thing worth noting as Klopp mulls over the decision: since the introduction of a group stage in 2004/05, only once has a team won both the Europa League and their domestic title, with that being Porto in 2011.
West Ham v TSC Backa Topola
Kick-off: Thursday 21 Sep, 20:00 BST
Backa Topola's last result: 6-3 win against Zeleznicar Pancevo
Backa Topola's league position: 1st
Entering their third successive season of European football, and qualifying for the Europa League as Europa Conference League winners, West Ham United are a vastly experienced team who enter this tournament full of confidence.
David Moyes will have no fear ahead of the visit of novices Backa Topola, playing in Europe for the first time in their 110-year history.
Including play-off matches, West Ham won 14 of their 15 matches in Europe last season, and on their way to the Europa League semi-finals the year before they lost only twice. This isn’t a team who tend to slip up against minnows. Serbian side TSC are certainly that.
They rank 235th in the UEFA coefficients, and although they are top of the Serbian league with six wins from their first seven matches, Backa Topola have never before faced a team of West Ham’s quality – or anything like it.
It’s something their fans have been getting used to of late.