What was once regarded as an irrelevant competition by neutral supporters, the UEFA Conference League’s inaugural campaign has perked up in intertest now we are a few games in. Initially set up as a way of providing more teams with an opportunity of tasting European football in some capacity, it sees a mix of sides from across the continent play out a tournament in the same format as the Europa League.
While some teams view this tournament as a huge honour, not only being presented the chance to face some stalwarts of the European game, but to put their respective counties on the map, others are less open minded and see the competition as a way of rotating their side from the fatigue of the domestic season and allowing fringe players to get more gametime. This has led to plenty of upsets already this season, the best courtesy of FK Bodø/Glimt, who smashed José Mourinho’s Roma 6-1 and then went 2-0 up in the Italian capital before two late goals salvaged a point.
It will certainly be an interesting proposition when the competition reaches its latter stages, even those who regularly bet on football have found it tough to call, with the strong sides on paper not all guaranteed to take the tournament as seriously as others. With that in mind, here are who we think may have an outside chance of going all the way in the Conference League.
Maccabi Tel Aviv
A side that featured regularly in the Champions League just over a decade ago, Israeli outfit Maccabi Tel Aviv have started this year’s Conference League in fine fettle — shipping just two goals so far in the group stages and looking potent in front of goal. Currently eighth in their domestic league, the title is all but out of reach for Patrick van Leeuwen’s side, so they can essentially throw all their eggs into the European basket and roll the dice with their best eleven out midweek. Their main outlet is Tal Ben Haim, the tricky winger and not the former Chelsea defender!
Having experienced players is key in pursuit of European success and despite their unspeakable actions on field in last season’s Europa League, which led to key players being banned for racist abuse, Slavia did play some good football en-route and would have learnt a lot by seeing off the likes of Rangers and Leicester City. Although they are second in their group, they look destined to make it out relatively unscathed, with a chance to finish top if they beat Feyenoord and other results go their way. However, it is hard to get behind them with the racist abuse overshadowing the side’s good performances on the pitch.
The recent 1-1 draw against Partizan was the first time Gent had dropped points in their group, as was the first time they had conceded a goal. The well drilled Belgian outfit, who lost every game in their last European campaign, look a far cry from that side. Under the guidance of Hein Vanhaezebrouck, in his second stint at the club, they have every chance of going to distance should they receive a favourable draw. Their ferocious home support will kick every ball and cheer them over the finishing line if they can get a second leg at the Cegeka Arena, an atmosphere no one will want to play in under the right circumstances.