The Europa League group stages get underway on Thursday with Germany's three representatives launching their campaigns in a trio of tricky opening games. Good results are needed with even more hazardous matches ahead.
Germany's teams look to start their group campaigns with wins
Thursday’s opening round of matches see Bayer Leverkusen face Norwegian champions Rosenborg BK at home, VfB Stuttgart entertain Switzerland's BSC Young Boys while Borussia Dortmund travel to Ukraine to take on Karpaty Lviv.
Leverkusen eased past Ukrainian side Tavriya Simferopol 6-1 on aggregate to reach the group stage where they were drawn again reigning champions Atletico Madrid, Greek side Aris Salonika and Champions League drop-outs Rosenborg, who they play this week.
Rosenborg were dumped out of the Champions League by FC Copenhagen in the qualifying rounds but at least fall into Europa League Group B carrying with them a wealth of European experience.
Before Manchester United claimed the record, the Norwegians held the distinction of the most consecutive group stage qualifications in the Champions League. They qualified eight times in succession during a halcyon period in which they made the group phase eleven times in the twelve years between 1995 and 2006.
Europe has been less kind to them in more recent seasons with poor showings in the Europa League since their last appearance in the Champions League proper in 2007. Despite this, Leverkusen will underestimate the Norwegians at their peril. The 21-time Norwegian champions are coming out of a period of transition and are looking to return to their days of dominance once again with a young and hungry squad.
Ballack misses early Rosenborg, Atletico clashes
Ballack's injury may have an effect on his team's progress
Leverkusen, who won the Europa League’s predecessor the UEFA Cup in 1988, will be without Michael Ballack for Thursday's clash at the BayArena after the midfielder picked up a shin injury half an hour into Leverkusen's 2-2 draw with Hannover 96 on Saturday. The 33-year-old has since been ruled out for six weeks and will miss the club's Group B opener and the trip to Madrid to face holders Atletico on September 30.
How decisive Ballack's absence will be in what could be two of Leverkusen's toughest games in the group remains to be seen. Most pundits have Atletico as a shoo-in for qualification with Leverkusen and Rosenborg fighting for the scraps and second place. With both the Germans and Norwegians expected to get maximum points from their games with Aris, Thursday's clash and the return leg in Trondheim on December 1 could decide who makes it into the next round with Madrid.
With Ballack fit for the visit of Atletico, however, Leverkusen will be hoping to spring a surprise on the title holders and gain an advantage over Rosenborg. However, unless they improve on their patchy performances in the Bundesliga to date – following up a 2-0 opening day win over Dortmund with a thumping 6-3 home defeat to Moenchengladbach and last week's draw with Hanover – Leverkusen could be taught a lesson by Diego Forlan, Kun Aguero and Co. when Atletico come calling.
Stuttgart 's shaky start needs European boost
VfB Stuttgart's coach Christian Gross will attempt to use his knowledge of Swiss soccer to plot a course past Young Boys on Thursday and set up a potentially smooth passage into the next round when the side from Bern come to southern Germany this week.
Stuttgart's nightmare league start may continue in Europe
The Swiss coach spent most of his playing career in the Swiss Super League and managed Grasshopper Zurich, FC Basel and FC Wil in his home country before trying his luck abroad. Young Boys, who gave one of Gross's former teams Tottenham Hotspurs a scare in the Champions League qualifiers earlier this season, are seen as Stuttgart's main rivals in Group H so a home win would ease the pressure ahead of potentially tricky games against Getafe of Spain and Denmark's Odense BK.
However, Stuttgart have suffered a nightmare start to the Bundesliga and have lost their opening three games to leave them bottom of the league. The Europa League may give them the respite they need from their domestic woes and the platform to build a recovery on in the Bundesliga.
On the other hand, they could continue their woeful form and have their misery compounded by Young Boys. If that were to happen and their league form continues to suffer, a damaging run of defeats may even knock the stuffing out of them ahead of the games with Getafe and Odense, which could prove deadly to their European ambitions.
Dortmund needs early points with Sevilla, PSG laying in wait
Borussia Dortmund face a dichotomy in Ukraine this week. They play probably the easiest team in Group J in their opening game but have to negotiate a difficult trip to the Carpathian Mountains to play it.
Karpaty Lviv are certainly the minnows of the group and BVB should have no problems beating them but the conditions, travel and location could all combine to make it far from a formality. Lviv have negligible European experience – this is their first European group game in a decade – and have struggled domestically for years.
Dortmund look to build on early league wins in Ukraine
Former Champions League winners Dortmund, meanwhile, have won two out of three in the Bundesliga so far after one of their best seasons in years saw them qualify for Europe. On paper, a BVB victory looks a good bet, but games aren't played on paper.
BVB should record home and away victories against Lviv – in fact, they'll need these wins if they are to progress, with Paris St. Germain and Sevilla laying in wait.
Sevilla have a good record in this competition; they won back to back UEFA Cup titles between 2005 and 2007. They finished fourth in La Liga last season and won the Copa del Rey against Atletico Madrid, beating Barcelona on the way to the final. With the likes of Luis Fabiano, Didier Zokora and Jesus Navas in their team, Sevilla are a force to be reckoned with and will be a real test for BVB.
Paris St. Germain have been an enigma in French soccer for many years now; a huge, rich club based in the capital with fanatical, partisan support but a team which perennially underperforms to an embarrassing degree. However, despite not winning Ligue 1 for over 15 years, a certain resurgence is underway. PSG won the French Cup and French Super Cup – the Trophée des Champions – last season. With a host of new, young French talent on their books, Dortmund should be wary.
Author: Nick Amies
Editor: Rob Turner