The big question that every Albion fan will be asking themselves this summer is: who will we face in the Europa League?
Our opponents will not be known until September 1, when the draw for the group stage is made. And, such is the labyrinthine nature of the competition that in most cases we do not even know for sure which clubs will be in the draw.
Some leagues have yet to be completed, some cup finals are still to be played and some clubs from some leagues will have to win through qualifying rounds, while others will only enter the draw after being eliminated from Champions League qualifying.
Spain, Italy and Germany each have two automatic entries into the group stage, ten other countries one each, while clubs from the remaining nations – including some major footballing countries including Norway, Denmark, Croatia and Turkey – must qualify.
Some potential opponents, such as Portugal’s Sporting and French Cup winners Toulouse are already known. Others, such as Slavia Prague and Antwerp, might find themselves in the Champions League depending on how their domestic leagues play out. But to whet your appetites, here are two groups of interesting clubs that Albion could end up visiting.
AC Milan. One of the giants of European football, playing in the iconic San Siro stadium, the Rossoneri also happen to be located in one of the world’s capitals of fashion and art. The Duomo, the Galleria Vittore Emmanuelle II, art galleries, the Armani museum – Milan has all the culture you could want. Even the railway station is monumental. What’s that you say? Food? Drink? It’s Italy, what do you think?
AS Monaco. Formerly managed by Arsene Wenger and represented by Glenn Hoddle, Monaco play in the French League but are based in the independent principality known for its sheer density of millionaires. Not many of them pack into the strange-looking Stade Louis II, built on top of multi-storey car park and usually more than half-empty. Millionaires apparently prefer Formula One to football. Hotels are cheaper in Nice, a short train ride away.
Freiburg. There are echoes of the Albion about this cult club, from a chic university city in the Black Forest. Fan-owned and fan-centric, not driven to insane spending and with the Bundesliga’s longest-serving coach in Christian Streich, they think long-term and believe in their youth policy. Its fan community stands against all forms of violence and discrimination – a sort of German Whitehawk FC, if you like. Oh, and of course there are sausages and beer. It’s still Germany after all.
PSV Eindhoven. The modern city of Eindhoven itself is not especially attractive, but the people, like all citizens of the Netherlands, know how to enjoy themselves. A visit in the knockout stages might coincide with their Fat Tuesday festival, and then you can wander off slightly drunkenly to the centrally-located Philips Stadium. By the way, don’t wrap up too warm. There are heaters in the stadium roof, provided by the electrical giant that is their chief sponsor.
Real Betis. No, of course you can’t find Betis on a map of Spain. Real Betis Balompié are based in Seville and play at the magnificent 60,000-capacity Estadio Benito Villamarín. Even in the winter months, the temperature in the capital of Andalucia rarely drops below 18 degrees. If it’s not too hot to move, you can experience the Moorish/Christian Alcázar palace, La Giralda, the cathedral, the Flamenco dancing, the tapas, the wine. If it is, stick to the tapas and wine.
Slavia Prague. Europe’s unofficial capital of stag nights and hen parties, the City of A Hundred Spires has everything you want on for an evening out on the eve of a match. There’s culture, the famous Charles Bridge over the Vltava River, the baroque buildings, Gothic churches and the medieval Astronomical Clock, and historic Wenceslas Square, where the ‘Velvet Revolution’ against communism began. And yes, of course there are beer tours.
Sporting Club de Portugal. Usually (and incorrectly) called Sporting Lisbon, Sporting Club are often in the shadow of neighbours Benfica, but Albion fans will only care that they are based in one of Europe’s most walkable and accessible capitals. Eat and drink in the Docas area of old waterfront, ride the trams that weave in and out of the tiny streets and gorge on Pasteles de Nata, the traditional custard tarts. What do you mean, you can buy them in Tesco? Not like this you can’t.
Villarreal. Ah, Spain – sun, sea and sangria. Well, two out of three isn’t bad. Villarreal might look as if it is on the coast, but it is actually about five kilometres inland, based just south of Castellon in the province of Valencia. The mystery is how the Yellow Submarine, a team from a place a little smaller than Hove, became a power in Spanish football, but they are much more famous than the industrial town from which they takes their name, a community most famous for its ceramics – the Spanish Stoke, if you like.
Their first European tie will take place on September 21, with the final group game on December 14, and then we’ll see. But there is an extra incentive for reaching the final this year. It’s in Dublin. Enough said.