Behich set to face Italian and German giants in UEFA Europa League

When Aziz Behich signed for İstanbul Başakşehir, the Caltex Socceroos left-back wanted to test himself on the big stage. Following the UEFA Europa League group stage draw, he may well get that opportunity. 

The Turkish Super Lig outfit will contend with giants from Italy and Germany, as well as an Austrian upstart, for a place in the knockout rounds of the European club tournament.

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Fierce competition 

Three-time Serie A champions AS Roma are the top seeds in Group J.

After five years of top-three finishes, the Giallorossi placed sixth in the Italian top flight last season, prompting a change of coach. Out went former Premier League winner Claudio Ranieri and in came Paulo Fonseca from Shakhtar Donetsk.

The Mozambique-born tactician has focused on solidifying the backline, bringing in the likes of Real Betis goalkeeper Pau Lopez and Juventus youngster Leonardo Spinazzola on permanent deals and Chelsea’s Davide Zappacosta and Manchester United’s Chris Smalling on loan.

Those defensive changes may need time, as shown in the season opening 3-3 draw against Genoa, but the capital club are not short on goal threat. Ex-Manchester City striker Edin Dzeko tends to lead the attack, supported by Cengiz Ünder, Justin Kluivert and Javier Pastore. 

It’s a time of transition in the Eternal City, with club stalwart Daniele De Rossi departing for Boca Juniors after 19 years as a professional at the Stadio Olimpico. A European trophy would remedy that. The capital club have only one continental trophy to their name, the Inter-Cities Fairs Cup in 1961.


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Decorated German rivals

They may be known to many outside of Germany as the tongue-twisters of European football but Borussia Mönchengladbach are one of the most decorated teams playing in the UEFA Europa League. 

A dominant spell in the 1970s saw the Foals lift the German Bundesliga title five times in eight years, finishing runners-up twice. The Prussians also reached the 1977 European Cup final and four UEFA Cup finals in that period. They lifted the trophy, which later become the Europa League, on two of those occasions in 1975 and 1979.

Much time has passed since those halcyon days and Gladbach are a team on the rise since head coach Dieter Hecking replaced Andre Schubert in 2017. A pair of ninth-placed finishes followed and the Borussia-Park club made the leap last season, finishing fifth, and returning to European competition.

French forward Alassane Plea top scored last campaign, while Behich may need to watch out for young Swiss international Breel Embolo and US attacker Fabian Johnson, who occupy forward positions. 

Marcus Thuram, the son of France 1998 World Cup winner Lillian, also impressed going forward in the recent 3-1 victory against Mainz.


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New kids in town

Completing Group J are a lesser-known Austrian outfit making their Europa League group stage debut: Wolfsberger AC. 

The club from Carinthia were promoted to the top flight of Austrian football for the first time in their 88-year history in 2012 and this is only their second ever outing in European football.

Their first continental adventure, in the 2015/16 UEFA Europa League, did not last long. After brushing past Belarusian team Shakhtyor Soligorsk 3-0 on aggregate, they fell to the German powerhouse Borussia Dortmund 6-0 on aggregate in the third qualifying round.

Gerhard Struber’s side recorded an all-time best finish of third in the top division in 2018/19, behind second-placed LASK Linz and the winners of the last six league titles, Red Bull Salzburg.

The 33-year-old forward Michael Liendl was their danger man in that record-setting campaign, scoring 11 times. Teenage Werder Bremen loanee Romano Schmid impressed so much that Wolfsberger have brought the Austrian Under-19 international back for another spell.

Other Aussies in action

Celtic pair Tom Rogic and Daniel Arzani are rebuilding their fitness levels and will hope to see some action in their UEFA Europa League campaign.

The eight-time back-to-back champions of Scotland have been draw in Group E alongside AS Roma's city rivals Lazio, who finished in eighth place in Italy's Serie A last season.

The Hoops will also compete with surprise Coupe de France winners Stade Rennais, who qualified for Europe despite a 10th-place Ligue 1 finish by beating odds-on favourites Paris Saint-Germain in the French Cup final on penalties.

CFR Cluj round off Group E. The Romanian champions drop into the Europa League following a 2-0 aggregate defeat in Champions League qualifying against Czech side Slavia Prague.

There could be revenge in the air as CRF Cluj knocked Celtic out of the previous round of Champions League qualifiers.

Another familiar face in the Europa League is that of LASK Linz midfielder James Holland. The 15-cap Caltex Socceroo last ran out for Australia in a 2014 friendly against the United Arab Emirates. 

The 30-year-old has become a regular for LASK Linz over the past three seasons. The Austrian Bundesliga runners-up will make their Europa League group stage debut against Sporting Club de Portugal, PSV Eindhoven of the Netherlands and Norweigan champions Rosenborg.

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