UEFA Europa League: A look into the contenders for this season's tournament

Some big teams are involved in this season's Europa League, but there remains some familiar faces who bring some much-welcomed nostalgia to the competition.

With the knockout stages approaching, we take a look at the possible contenders to lift this season's UEFA Europa League, following on from our Champions League guide.

AC Milan

Once regarded as one of the most prominent sides in world soccer, AC Milan have become sleeping giants in the past decade but it seems as though they now have their charm back.

Especially when it comes to domestic form with Stefano Pioli's men currently top in Serie A ahead of Inter Milan and Juventus. With 39-year-old Zlatan Ibrahimovic leading the line for them up front, Rossoneri have an experienced and former winner of the Europa League in the Swede.

Ibra - who continues to prove age is just a number - won the tournament in 2017 with Manchester United.

Ibrahimovic scored a brace against Inter Milan earlier this season to inspire them to a 2-1 victory over his former club
Ibrahimovic scored a brace against Inter Milan earlier this season to inspire them to a 2-1 victory over his former club

With other star players such as Hakan Calhanoglu, Ante Rebic, Sandro Tonali and Mario Mandzukic available to coach Stefano Pioli, Milan will have the talent to go all the way in this year's Europa League.

Being one of Europe's historical elite, due to European Cup triumphs - now known as the Champions League - on seven occasions, Milan will have high expectations from their supporters to deliver European success this time around with a squad capable of doing so.

They will face Serbia's Crvena Zvezda in their Europa League Round of 32 matchup. Their opponents sit top of their domestic league having not lost a game, so it will be a tie to be taken seriously.

However, AC Milan should comfortably progress to the latter stages, especially if they want to be seen again as one of Europe's elite.

Manchester United

Man United's participation in this year's Europa League knockout stage comes as a result of a disappointing exit in the UEFA Champions League group stage. Coach Ole Gunnar Solskjaer is still seeking a first trophy as United boss and will be sure to target the Europa League as a springboard for further success.

The Red Devils have had a largely good season and currently sit second in the Premier League, below arch-rivals Manchester City but above defending champions Liverpool, who are currently fourth.

The current squad certainly has enough quality to sustain a real push in this year's Europa League due to their attacking prowess of Bruno Fernandes, Marcus Rashford, Edinson Cavani, Mason Greenwood, Paul Pogba and Anthony Martial.

Paul Pogba is the club's record signing and has impressed in recent times alongside Bruno Fernandes but could be out for two weeks after suffering a thigh injury
Paul Pogba is the club's record signing and has impressed in recent times alongside Bruno Fernandes but could be out for two weeks after suffering a thigh injury

It will be interesting how much Solskjaer rotates his side as summer signings Donny van de Beek and Alex Telles, plus other sporadic squad members who will be hoping to be given chances to impress in Europe's second-tier competition.

Solskjaer may be hesitant to make these sorts of changes though with a tricky tie in the Round of 32 against Real Sociedad. The Spanish side have had an impressive campaign so far in La Liga and sit sixth in the league. The acquisition of Man City legend David Silva has certainly boosted their performances.

With a poor record against Spanish teams, with defeats to Barcelona, Real Madrid, Sevilla, Valencia and Athletic Bilbao in previous years, Silva will be hoping to add more misery to their recent record.

A semi-final triumph over Spain's Celta Vigo on the way to winning the 2017 Europa League was a rare feat for United and they will hope to improve their record against Spanish opposition when the first leg takes place on February 18.

Tottenham Hotspur

Now it may seem ridiculous to consider Tottenham a serious contender for this year's Europa League crown due to them not winning a trophy since their League Cup win over Chelsea in 2008 and recent offering on the pitch.

But with Jose Mourinho in charge and Tottenham facing a fight to finish in the top four, a Europa League run may be a priority for the North London side.

Mourinho has won this trophy before with FC Porto in 2003 and Man United in 2017, viewing it as a platform for greater success. That worked with Porto as they won the Champions League the following season but that did not replicate at the latter.

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Mourinho has already proven he can get Tottenham closer to success as they are set to face Man City in this year's EFL Carabao Cup final, which is rescheduled for late April.

Even though Mourinho has not won a league title since 2015, and a Champions League since 2010, he has proven he still has what it takes to get over the line in cup competitions.

If Tottenham can get their attacking duo of Harry Kane and Heung-Min Son firing, they will be a threat to anybody left in the competition.

While tan over reliance on these two players may not be sustainable in the league over a whole 38 game season, in two-legged knockout football, it can work a treat.

Tottenham should get through the next round fairly comfortably against Wolfsberger AC from the Austrian Bundesliga. Their opponents remain sixth in their domestic league and have a negative goal difference of -4 this season.

Potential dark horses

Villarreal CF - Fifth in La Liga and have three-time Europa League winning coach Unai Emery in charge but face a tough round of 32 matchup against second placed Austrian Bundesliga side FC Red Bull Salzburg.

AS Roma - Fourth in Serie A and face Portugal's S.C. Braga, sitting third in the Primeira Liga and while it will examine Roma's credentials, their accuracy in front of goal should see them come through the challenge.

Leicester City - Doing excellent in the Premier League under Brendan Rodgers in third place, the Foxes face Czech side SK Slavia Prague in the next round.

With the race for Champions League wide open, Rodgers faces a dilemma of whether to prioritise the league over potential European history.

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