Atletico Madrid value for Europa League consolation prize
Arsenal may suffer from lack of focus
Best bet to lift the trophy
Atletico Madrid 7-2
Atletico Madrid are the highest-ranked team to miss out on the Champions League last 16 but they can claim a consolation prize by winning the Europa League and justifying their status as market leaders.
There are some big teams in the last 32, including Borussia Dortmund, Arsenal, Napoli and Milan, but none of them can match the consistently high standards achieved by Atletico in recent European campaigns.
Atleti were losing Champions League finalists in 2014 and 2016, beaten by rivals Real Madrid on both occasions, and this season is the first time in five that they failed to get as far as the quarter-finals.
Dropping into the Europa League is seen as a big step down - they are fourth in the latest Uefa coefficients - but Atletico have a great affinity with the competition, having lifted the trophy in 2010 and 2012. And they have every to take it seriously this year as it is their only realistic hope of silverware.
Atletico will do all they can to bridge the seven-point gap to Barcelona in La Liga but it will be a tough ask given that Barca have dropped just ten points in 23 games.
Diego Simeone’s men have the best defensive record in La Liga, conceding just nine goals, and look more potent in attack since the January arrival of Diego Costa from Chelsea.
Costa has scored three goals in seven games and his hold-up play is helping to get the best out of Antoine Griezmann, who has netted four times in his last five matches.
Simeone’s well-drilled side are so tough to beat on a one-off basis and have lost just four games in all competitions this season.
Over two legs they will be even more difficult to overcome.
Marseille have had some tough times since winning the inaugural Champions League in 1993 but a new era is dawning thanks to significant investment from American owner Frank McCourt and there may be some each-way value in siding with the French club.
Marseille were busy in the transfer market last summer, although it took a while for the team to gel. However, they have won eight and drawn two of their last ten matches and are up to third in Ligue 1, just a point behind second-placed Monaco.
They seem to be getting stronger as the season progresses and look solid odds-on favourites for a last-32 tie against Braga.
Tougher tests lie in store further down the line but the Europa League often throws up a surprise package and Marseille will be doing their utmost to reach the final in Lyon on May 16.
Others to consider
Second-favourites Arsenal might be looking at the Europa League as their best hope of qualifying for next season’s Champions League.
However, Arsene Wenger seems reluctant to make the competition his top priority and the club's hierarchy paid scant attention to the Europa League when conducting their January transfer dealings.
Olivier Giroud, one of Arsenal’s key players in the Europa League group stage, was replaced by Pierre-Emerick Aubameyang, who is ineligible to play in the competition.
The goalscoring responsibility was expected to fall on the shoulders of Alexandre Lacazette but the Frenchman, who has scored only once in his last 13 appearances, could be out of action for six weeks after a knee operation.
Arsenal won’t have to be at their best to get past Ostersunds in the first knockout round but may lack the firepower to go all the way.
Serie A leaders Napoli, showed glimpses of their ability in the Champions League and are one of the most exciting teams in the Europa League.
However, they will be heavily focused on winning their first Scudetto since 1990 and a round-of-32 tie against Leipzig looks a potential banana skin.
A lack of focus could also be an issue for Lazio, who are fifth in Serie A and engaged in a tough battle with Inter and Roma for a top-three finish so the strongest Italian challenge could come from Milan, who are starting to improve under Gennaro Gattuso.
The Rossoneri are unbeaten in eight but are ten points behind Italy’s top three and, like Arsenal, may feel the Europa League is their best route into next season’s Champions League.
However, Milan would have to improve dramatically on a lacklustre group-stage campaign which featured two goalless draws against AEK Athens and a 2-0 loss away to Rijeka.
Borussia Dortmund are hard to fancy after the January sale of Aubameyang.
2pts 7-2 general
1pt each-way 33-1 general
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