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The Champions League might be the cultural behemoth that straddles the sporting landscape from February to May but if you're after something a little more left of the dial then the Europa League rarely disappoints when it reaches its knockout stage.

If nothing else, the second tier competition has so many games that if you can't find something to peak your interest that's your fault, not its. Europa League brings variety aplenty. Take your pick from fallen giants (half the English teams), bright young things being stripped for parts (Red Bull Salzburg, Lille) and grand old names from a bygone era of European football (Red Star, AC Milan).

We rank the best of the best below.

1. Real Sociedad vs. Manchester United

La Liga's leading team at the Theatre of Dreams and you're telling me they're playing this in the Europa League? Whether or not Real Sociedad remain at the top of the table come February, they will have formidable attacking weapons – Mikel Oyarzabal, David Silva and Willian Jose to name but a few – to throw at United, a team that will surely be predictably unpredictable whoever is at the wheel. There's going to be fireworks in this one.

2. Ajax vs. Lille

Going into Thursday's draw none of the Champions League last 16 topped their domestic tables. A whopping 13 of the Europa League's last 32 are currently the best sides in their land, among them these two offensive juggernauts. And people call this a tier two competition. We'll see if they still do after a shootout between David Neres, Dusan Tadic, Yusuf Yazici and Jonathan Ikone. 

3. Benfica vs. Arsenal

Surely Arsenal won't be this bad come February, will they? If they are then you can send this sliding down the list because Benfica will rifle through a disorganized defense with even the ageing Nicolas Otamendi and Jan Vertonghen able to hold off an attack that challenges defenses with the aggression and verve of a sloth. Still if Pierre-Emerick Aubameyang and company do turn up in 2021 this could be an absorbing contest.

4. Red Bull Salzburg vs. Villarreal

Europa League specialist Unai Emery – three wins and another final – takes on a team who were among the most dangerous attacking sides in the Champions League even if their naivety led them to defeat against Atletico Madrid. Salzburg will likely be without Dominik Szoboszlai and possibly more after the January window but a team that has thrived post-Sadio Mane, Naby Keita and Erling Haaland can be trusted to be a threat next year.

5. Granada vs. Napoli

Granada have lost a smidge of their defensive excellence of late but it is too soon to assume they have lost that lockdown quality that made them such a tough out in a group stage where they conceded three goals. How will they fare against Dries Mertens, Hirving Lozano and Victor Osimhen? I can't wait to find out.

6. Red Star vs. AC Milan

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This could only be more early 90s if both teams took to the San Siro turf in plaid flannel shirts, ripped jeans and combat boots. Milan are going to be one to watch in this competition, they have a deep squad filled with youngsters who have been told not to fear mistakes. Add Zlatan Ibrahimovic to the mix and you have a real contender.

7. Antwerp vs. Rangers

Steven Gerrard's Scottish table toppers and a team that gave Tottenham quite a tough task in the group stages? Insert Marge Simpson "I just think they're neat" meme.

8. Braga vs. Roma

The Mid-2010s Premier League All Stars of AS Roma are an intriguing dark horse for this competition with plenty of veteran attacking talent. Braga may not match Roma in weight of numbers but they have one player who could be a breakout star of this tournament: 23-year-old winger Galeno. With two goals and five assists the Brazilian made the group stages his own, he might yet do the same as the tournament wears on. 

9. Olympiacos vs. PSV Eindhoven

Much like Granada vs. Napoli, this has defense vs. offense written all over it. PSV Eindhoven have scored 44 goals in 20 matches this season and have brilliant young forwards such as Donyell Malen and Noni Madueke. But Marseille, Arsenal and even Manchester City would attest that Olympiacos are an exceptionally hard side to score against, one who are adept at keeping themselves in matches until the last.

10. Dinamo Kiev vs. Club Brugge

A crossbar was all that stood between Club Brugge and eliminating Lazio. They will probably not draw much attention but the Belgians are not to be trifled with and have exceptional young talents such as Krepin Diatta, Charles De Ketelaere and Noa Lang. Look out for them as dark horses in this competition.

11. Young Boys vs. Leverkusen

Leverkusen were top scorers in the group stage with 21 goals and Young Boys reached the knockout stages in the silliest fashion, coming out the better from a final 12 minutes against CFR Cluj that saw three red cards and as many goals. A bit more of that would be prime Hankook, a reminder that this is the competition where the silly things happen.


12. Slavia Prague vs. Leicester City

We are starting to get to the stage where you fear the unseeded team might be overwhelmed by their opposition. Certainly Leicester are blessed with attacking talent in abundance, perhaps Slavia Prague's best chance is that Brendan Rodgers is instead focused on the battle for a top four finish.

13. Maccabi Tel-Aviv vs. Shakhtar Donetsk

The Ukrainians really deserved to get into the Champions League knockout stages. But they didn't, because deserve doesn't come into it. Still pushing Real Madrid so far and beating Inter Milan to third spot is the sign of a quality side, one with comfortably enough to beat a Maccabi team that came through one of the worst groups in the Europa League.

14. Molde vs. Hoffenheim

Two good teams, one of whom – Hoffenheim – was really good in the group stage. Keep an eye out for Ryan Sessegnon, who's coming back to something approximating his Fulham form now that he's getting regular game time.

15. Wolfsberg vs. Tottenham

This lowly ranking is not because this won't be a good game but more that Tottenham's B team is good enough to roll past most teams at this stage of the competition. And if by any chance it's not then Jose Mourinho just introduces Heung-min Son and Harry Kane. Oh well… 

16. Krasnodar vs. Dinamo Zagreb

For all the ironic veneration of the Europa League the fact that this is the most uninspiring tie of the round suggests that maybe this is actually a really enjoyable competition. Kransnodar were a difficult, disciplined team against Chelsea who may well find their level in this tournament. Dinamo Zagreb have outstanding young talents from a footballing hotbed – Dominik Livakovic, Lovro Majer and Josko Gvardiol – who topped a strong group. This will be a fun game of football, which is more than can be said for some of the Champions League ties. And yes I am looking at you Porto vs. Juventus.