AC Milan, Arsenal, Chelsea headline 48 Europa League teams

              Chelsea's Willian, left, celebrates scoring his sides 4th goal of the game during their English Premier League soccer match between Chelsea and Cardiff City at Stamford Bridge stadium in London Saturday, Sept. 15, 2018. (AP Photo/Alastair Grant)

For seven-time European champion AC Milan, Arsenal and Chelsea, the Europa League provides a chance to return to the Champions League. For Sarpsborg, Dudelange or Vidi, it’s more about gaining experience in an international competition.

The Europa League has something to offer everyone, from the heavyweights to the underdogs to all the clubs in between.

The second-tier European competition kicks off Thursday with 48 teams in 12 groups. The final will be on May 29 at Baku Olympic Stadium.

After UEFA’s decision to award a Champions League qualifying place to the winning team, which started in the 2015-16 season, the competition is no longer treated with contempt by the big teams. But the Thursday match days require coaches to rest or rotate some of their best players to be ready for weekend league games back home.

A look at the forthcoming season in the Europa League:


The two clubs were hardly looking to return to the Europa League for the second straight year, but that’s what they had to settle for after failing to secure a spot in the Champions League following unsuccessful league campaigns.

Last season, Arsenal eliminated Milan in the round of 16 before it was knocked out in the semifinals by Atletico Madrid, the Spanish team that went on to win the trophy for the third time in nine years.

In its quest to lift the only European trophy it has never won, Milan opens this week against Dudelange, the first team from Luxembourg to reach the group stage. Olympiakos and Real Betis are also in the group.

Arsenal manager Unai Emery will be in familiar territory in the Europa League in his first season with the London club. The Spaniard guided Sevilla to three straight Europa League titles in 2014-16.

Arsenal starts against Ukrainian club Vorskla Poltava, with matches to come against Sporting Lisbon and Qarabag.


Chelsea and Sevilla have no intention of emulating Milan and Arsenal by staying in the Europa League any longer than necessary.

Both have won the trophy in the past, with Sevilla holding a record five titles and Chelsea winning it in 2012 — the last time they competed in the tournament.

With a perfect record of five wins from five matches, Chelsea leads the Premier League and looks to be heading for a return to the Champions League anyway.

Chelsea travels to Greek club PAOK Thessaloniki for its opener and will also have to face BATE Borisov and Hungarian club Vidi. Sevilla hosts Standard Liege on Thursday in a group that also includes Russian club Krasnodar and Turkish team Akhisar Belediyespor.