The Europa League is many things to many different footballers. It can be an opportunity for stars-in-waiting to confirm their quality, as Falcao did in 2011, or a shot at redemption for those considered past their best or not good enough for the top level, as was the case for Nikola Kalinic in 2015.
At the same time it can offer players plying their trade away from Europe’s major leagues, such as Andrey Arshavin in 2008, the chance to strut their stuff on a continental stage.
This season’s Europa League has been just as exciting as recent additions, and with the round of 16 almost upon us, it’s time for a number of players to showcase their talents. Here, Football Whispers picks out eight to watch.
IAGO ASPAS (CELTA VIGO)
— UEFA Europa League (@EuropaLeague) February 27, 2017
During a one-year spell in the Premier League with Liverpool, Iago Aspas failed to make much of an impact. The Spaniard subsequently left having made just 15 appearances for the club, in which he scored only once.
However, since returning to Celta in 2015, the lively forward has returned to his finest form. Last season he hit 18 goals in all competitions, and this term he has found the net a remarkable 19 times. With three goals in six Europa League outings, the 29-year-old will be hoping to show that Liverpool were wrong to let him go so hastily two years ago.
MAHMOUD DAHOUD (BORUSSIA MONCHENGLADBACH)
After breaking out last season, Mahmoud Dahoud has continued to impose himself upon games from the centre of midfield for Monchengladbach. And, at just 21 years of age, the playmaker is already attracting interest from some of Europe’s top clubs.
With a rare composure for someone so young, the German dictates play centrally, constantly looking to get on the ball and break the lines with a pass. He has the unruffled control under pressure and refined technique of a young Andrea Pirlo, and he will be pivotal to his side’s hopes of Europa League progress.
EDIN DZEKO (ROMA)
— AS Roma English (@ASRomaEN) March 4, 2017
When Roma play, most eyes will be on Radja Nainggolan, their dynamic, battling midfielder, or on Mohamed Salah, their pacy winger. However, at the end of almost all of their attacking moves will be Edin Dzeko, who is enjoying a career rejuvenation.
The former Manchester City striker struggled for form in his first season in Italy, missing several sitters and scoring just eight league goals in 31 outings. He's fully adapted to life in Serie A and this term he has been clinical, hitting the back of the net 29 times in all competitions, including eight in the Europa League, making him the competition’s joint-top scorer. His movement, aerial threat and ruthless finishing will spell trouble for any defence Roma come up against.
SEAD KOLASINAC (SCHALKE)
In the eyes of many, Sead Kolasinac has been Schalke’s best player in a disappointing campaign. The Bosnian has played consistently well at left wing-back within his team’s 3-5-2 shape, leading to speculation that he could leave for a Premier League club in the summer.
Chelsea have been persistently linked and, with his physicality, strength in the tackle and astute crossing, the 23-year-old may well be a perfect fit for Antonio Conte’s system. With his contract up at the end of the season, some positive Europa League displays could be the ideal way for Kolasinac to say goodbye to Schalke.
PAUL POGBA (MANCHESTER UNITED)
He may be an obvious choice, but everything is set up for Paul Pogba to lead Manchester United to Europa League glory. The Frenchman was criticised unfairly early in the season as everyone else around him struggled and the weight of his record-breaking £89.3 million transfer fee told. And then, when his team’s form picked up, all the plaudits went to Zlatan Ibrahimovic.
Pogba has arguably been United’s most consistent performer this season, and he has also played exceptionally well in the Europa League. Against defensive opposition, his vision, audacity and precise passing could be key in leading Jose Mourinho’s side into the competition’s latter stages.
PANAGIOTIS RETSOS (OLYMPIAKOS)
Bayern Munich scout Michael Reschke watched Panagiotis Retsos of Olympiakos in their Europa League game vs Young Boys [Evangelos Michos] pic.twitter.com/8tyyH5iXqF
— BayernFanTV (@TheBayernFanTV) November 23, 2016
At just 18 years of age, Panagiotis Retsos is fast becoming hot property. The Greek defender has imposed himself upon the first team at Olympiakos this season, and has shown great versatility in operating at left-back, centre-back and defensive midfield.
Quick in covering ground, intelligent and a fine ball-player, he has reportedly been watched by Arsenal. And, should he build on the five sound Europa League displays he has put in so far, a move could be on the horizon.
DAVINSON SANCHEZ (AJAX)
When it comes to young talent, Ajax are never short. And this season has been particularly intriguing on this front, with the Dutch giants bringing through two promising attackers in 19-year-old Danish forward Kasper Dolberg and 17-year-old winger Justin Kluivert. However, while he may not get the same attention, Davinson Sanchez’s progress has been just as noteworthy.
The 20-year-old Colombian centre-back has settled well to Dutch football, with his power, mobility and aerial strength making him stand out. And, on top of his defensive gifts, he is a sound distributor; indeed, this season he has completed 89.5 per cent of his attempted passes in the Eredivisie. All of this means he is undoubtedly worth keeping an eye on as Ajax look to get beyond Copenhagen in the Europa League’s last 16.
LUCAS TOUSART (LYON)
— Get French Football News (@GFFN) March 4, 2017
Lyon constantly produce some of the finest young players French football has to offer, and this season has been no different. In defence, the 20-year-old Mouctar Diakhaby has established himself at centre-back, however 19-year-old defensive midfielder Lucas Tousart looks even more promising.
Over the course of 16 Ligue 1 appearances, Tousart has averaged 2.3 tackles and 1.7 interceptions per game. These numbers reflect his qualities without the ball at feet, such as his good positioning, knowledge of when to press, and tackling ability. However, he is also an efficient, if unspectacular, passer with the tactical intelligence to shield the defence on his own or as part of a double pivot.
Having started in both legs of Lyon’s 11-2 aggregate win over AZ in Europa League’s first knockout stage, Tousart is on course to play a vital role in the team going forward. His manager, Bruno Genesio, has admitted as much, saying, “[Tousart] gives a sense of balance if we lose the ball, because he is…always well-positioned. He is one of the important players on the team.”