MANCHESTER, England (AP) — The Europa League returns on Thursday with the first round of matches in the group stage. Here are five things to know about the continent’s second-tier club competition this season:
WINNERS TO COME FROM CHAMPIONS LEAGUE?
On recent form, there’s a good chance that the eventual winner of the Europa League won’t even be playing on Thursday. Last year’s finalists, Chelsea and Benfica, started out in the Champions League before being bumped down to the Europa League after finishing third in their groups. It means Juventus could yet get a home game in the final at its Turin’s Juventus Stadium, even though the Serie A champion began its Champions League campaign on Tuesday with a 1-1 draw at FC Copenhagen.
From the 48 teams starting out in the group stage, 27 countries will be represented — a record for the competition. Kazakhstan will be represented for the first time through Shakhter Karagandy, which lost to Celtic in the final qualifying round in the Champions League. Russia, Spain, England, Ukraine, Belgium and Portugal will all have three sides each.
SURPRISE ENGLISH QUALIFIER
Wigan is one of four teams — along with Estoril (Portugal), Kuban Krasnodar (Russia) and CS Pandurii Targu Jiu (Romania) — taking part in their first European campaigns after surprisingly winning the FA Cup in England last season. However, it will be competing out of the second tier of English football after getting relegated from the Premier League. That’s nothing new for England, though — Millwall was at the same level when the London team took its place in the UEFA Cup in the 2004-05 campaign as a reward for being the beaten finalists in the FA Cup the previous season.
INJURY WOES FOR FIORENTINA
Fiorentina begins its Group E campaign without prized summer signing Mario Gomez, who is out for six weeks with a left knee injury, and also speedy winger Juan Cuadrado, who dislocated his shoulder in the same Serie A game against Cagliari on Sunday. Fiorentina will be among the favorites for the competition after finishing fourth in the Italian league last season, just missing out on a Champions League berth to AC Milan on the final day of the season.
SWANSEA’S SPANISH CONTINGENT
When Swansea travels to Valencia for arguably the standout match of the first round, it could end up being like a home match for the English Premier League team. Swansea manager Michael Laudrup took the number of Spanish players in his squad to seven by signing Alejandro Pozuelo, Jose Canas and Jordi Amat in the offseason. The only player in the club’s Spanish contingent who won’t be travelling to the Mestalla will be Pablo Hernandez, a former Valencia player, who misses out with a hamstring injury.