Having sent Paços de Ferreira 3-1 overall, Tottenham Hotspur found out about their UEFA Europa Conference League group stage opponents on Friday. There was the usual wait, as UEFA invariably extended the draw ceremony for apparent eternity.
The infographics explained every descriptive minutiae of what could have been a much simpler process. They ignored the reasoning behind the separation of Qarabağ from Azerbaijan and Alashkert from Armenia (ethnic contempt and 30 years of war). After the endless slag cameos from former players and companies sales pitch, the draw was finally made.
Tottenham to play group G with the French Stade Rennais, Vitesse Arnhem from the Netherlands and Slovenian NŠ Mura. Saved the ignominy of Gibraltar ties or any other embarrassing device, fans will consider an average result. It might not be without fail, but getting through the group stage in the lead should easily be Tottenham’s job.
An in-depth look at Tottenham Hotspur’s Europa League group
The Breton team finished sixth in Ligue 1 last season, with their fourth consecutive season of European football. They qualified for the Champions League last season, but that involved a fair amount of luck.
The 2019/20 season has been unique to be Completed on a points per game (PPG) basis, rather than resume in camera. It was the only one of Europe’s “big five” leagues not to restart after the initial Covid-19 lockdown.
Rennes were somewhat lucky that the league finished there, with 1.79 PPG over fourth, Monaco, 1.75. That Rennes escaped their planned trip to Paris Saint-Germain will undoubtedly have helped their PPG ranking.
In the Champions League last season, they finished at the bottom of their group, picking up just one point for the Russian team in Krasnodar. They won the Coupe de France in 2019 against Paris Saint-Germain.
The team includes Jérémy Doku, the Belgian winger who made a surprise start against Italy in the European quarter-finals. He more than held up and represents a potential talent on hold. That said, Tottenham should have enough to push back the French north-west.
The club became associated with Chelsea, apparently relegated to a finishing school for youngsters in West London. People like Mason Mount, Nemanja Matić and Patrick van Aanholt all jumped to the Netherlands to hone their latent potential under the guidance of the great brotherly partnership.
They last faced the English opposition in 2015, losing 5-0 to Southampton on aggregate in the Europa League qualifiers. They never made it out of the European group stage and Tottenham shouldn’t have any problems with them.
Fans may be worried about the potential of a banana peel, especially given their closeness to Chelsea and the ignominy of their ‘second team’ suffering. But whichever side Nuno Espirito Santo chooses, Vitesse shouldn’t worry Tottenham too much.
Comparatively, little is known about Slovenian champions among English football chatter classes. This is a phoenix club, from the bankrupt Mura 05 youth team (itself a reformation of a former Mura team). They underwent back-to-back promotions from 2015 to 2017 and won the league for the first time in any iteration.
Based in a town of just 11,000 people, this is one of those football occasions where the team is just happy to be there.
Tottenham faced the Slovenian opposition in the 2012/13 Europa League group stage in the form of Maribor. They struggled, drawing a 1-1 away draw under Andre Villas-Boas before a 3-1 home win.
The cruel realities of the inconsistent UEFA tournament strategy are that Mura and Tottenham are radically divergent in terms of quality. Tottenham could, and probably should, defeat them easily with a second or third string. Whether or not Santo opts for weakened rosters remains to be seen.
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The two teams chosen by Santo in the jump-off illustrate the nature of his priorities. In the first leg, he selected a young team filled with Nile John and Dane Scarlett at the start. There were also the first appearances of Christian Romero and Bryan Gil, in an effort to get newcomers to be in good shape.
When that elective 11 was not enough to defeat Portugal’s fifth team, he fielded a much stronger side for the second leg. While not quite the first team, the manager has picked a solid squad consisting of Eric Dier and Lucas Moura, who both started the Premier League game on Sunday. There was also room for (possibly) rehabilitated Harry Kane, and strong (possibly unnecessary) substitutions, with Heung-min Son and Steven Bergwijn both later.
The extensive nature of group stage football allows Tottenham to tinker. They can play young, but Santo has shown that he will use his world class players if necessary. Whatever happens, Tottenham should have enough of them to dominate the group and reach the next stages. The road to Tirana begins in earnest.
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