Everton were again making the headlines, and in particular Gylfi Sigurdsson after his 45 yard screamer secured Everton a place in the Europa League Group Stage with a 1-1 draw away at Hajduk Split on Thursday night. The draw for the group stage was made on Friday afternoon with Everton facing the possibility of some decent away trips to the likes of Milan, Athletic Bilbao and maybe even Villareal. Unlike the 2014/15 group stage, Everton have been handed a brilliant group from the fans point of view with trips to Italy, France and Cyprus but what can we expect from our fellow Group E opponents?
Stadium: Groupama Stadium (59,186)
Ligue 1 16/17: 4th
Everton probably would have preferred to avoid last seasons semi-finalists and Lyon undoubtedly pose the biggest challenge for Everton during the group stage. Lyon qualified directly for the group stage after finishing 4th in Ligue 1 last season, finishing a hefty 12 points behind third place Nice. Powered by the goals of Alexandre Lacazette, they reached the last four of last season’s Europa League, defeating AZ Alkmaar, Besiktas and AS Roma before losing to Ajax in a hectic two legged semi-final which finished 5-4 on aggregate. Although they’ve lost their star striker Lacazette to Arsenal, Lyon still have plenty of talent with former Manchester Utd winger Memphis Depay, French international Nabil Fekir and newly signed Bertrand Traore from Chelsea amongst their ranks. They’ve started the season well too with two wins and a draw from their first three games and will harbour realistic hopes of making the top three this time around hence gaining a Champions League spot.
Whilst Lyon will be tough opponents, there’s no reason why Everton can’t beat them and you could argue that Everton have the stronger squad. It was also nice to get one “big” opponent in the group stage, after all playing in Europe is all about big ties and playing against high quality opposition.
Stadium: Matches to be played at Sassuolo’s Mapei Stadium (23,717)
Serie A 16/17: 4th
Atalanta may be an unfamiliar opponent for Evertonians in fact it will be the first time we’ve met the Italian outfit. Atalanta we’re the surprise package in Serie A last season finishing 4th having finished 13th the season before. They most recently gained promotion to Serie A in 2014 but Everton shouldn’t take them lightly. Playing in Europe for the first time since 1991, Atalanta will be treating every game as a cup final and will be keen to make their journey last. Their main danger man is Argentina international Alejandro Gomez who scored 16 goals in Serie A last season. Other familiar faces are Marten De Roon who was plying his trade for Middlesbrough last season and Ex-Cardiff City player Andreas Cornelius who infamously made just 8 appearances in Cardiff’s maiden Premier League season in 2013.
Atalanta’s stadium is currently undergoing renovation work in order to bring it up to UEFA competition standard meaning they will play their Europa League games at Sassuolo’s Mapei Stadium which is some 119 miles away.
Stadium: Matches to be played at GSP Stadium, Nicosia (22,859)
Cypriot First Division 16/17: 3rd
Apollon Limassol last made it into the Group Stage of a European Competition in 2014/15 when they finished bottom of their Europa League group with just 3 points from their 6 games. Based in the picturesque city of Limassol on the southern coast of Cyprus, it should be a pretty decent trip for any travelling fans although much like Atalanta, Apollon Limassol’s European matches will not be played at their home venue, instead they will be played 44 miles away at the GSP Stadium in Nicosia. Apollon Limassol are considered one of Cyprus’ most successful clubs and have competed in the Europa League Group Stage on two previous occasions. They had to start in the second qualifying round this season and actually defeated Aberdeen 3-2 on aggregate in the third qualifying round before dispatching Denmark’s Midtjylland in the Play Off round. Realistically, Everton should have no issues facing their Cypriot opponents.
Everton can now look forward to their first season of European football since the 2014/15 season and overall, the group stage draw has turned out well, especially for the fans. Avoiding any ridiculously long trips to the likes of Russia could be of huge benefit and although Group E certainly isn’t easy, Everton will be favourites to top the group along with Lyon. Atalanta will pose good opposition but there should be no doubt that anything but qualification from the group stage would be a huge underachievement. The Europa League will be very high on Everton’s agenda this season and with a 17/18 Champions League place awaiting the winners, Everton will be taking the competition as seriously as possible.