The final Europa League qualifying matches are underway, and tomorrow Chelsea will learn where they will start their European campaign.
Rennes and Rangers would make for a friendly draw, while Real Betis and AC Milan could spell serious trouble.
The Blues are back in Europe’s second-tier competition, just as UEFA is toying with the idea of adding a third tier.
Here are a few possibilities for Chelsea’s draw and how the Blues could fare against some of the more well-known competition.
1. Rennes: Close to home and not overly threatening
When it comes to the Europa League, the proximity of an opponent can be just as important as the quality. Other than the Scottish clubs, Chelsea couldn’t do much better than to draw against a French side.
The two potential group-mates for Chelsea would be Rennes and Marseille. Marseille finished fourth in Ligue 1 and were Europa League finalists last year, losing to Atletico Madrid, so it would be nice to avoid them if at all possible.
Rennes would be a much kinder draw. While they achieved an admirable fifth place finish in the league last season, they were a full 19 points behind Marseille.
Their squad is mostly unchanged from last season, with the exception of the highly-promising Joris Gnagnon departing for Sevilla, and Wahbi Khazri returning to Sunderland after a one-year loan spell at Rennes.
Suffice to say, Chelsea could do worse than being drawn against a relatively nearby side who have most likely declined talent-wise from last season.
2. Rangers: Don’t let this chance slip away
Some will prefer to take on Brendan Rodgers and his Celtic side, but if Chelsea are going to make the quick jaunt up to Glasgow, it would be much more fun to go up against Steven Gerrard’s Rangers.
Rangers’ swift fall from grace has been well-documented over the past few years, but they have finally clawed their way back towards relevancy, at least within Scotland.
This summer, their splashiest acquisition was none other than Liverpool legend and zero-time Premier League champion Steven Gerrard.
While Gerrard would likely be the greatest player to ever take the field for Rangers, even at 38, he will be confined to the touchline, having been appointed manager in June.
Even in retirement, his career continues to be a bizarro-world mirroring of Frank Lampard’s. While Gerrard’s appointment is a great marketing tool for a club trying to rise like a phoenix from the dumpster-fire they’ve been for the last decade, they still aren’t a good team yet.
A bad team that’s nearby is always a great draw, so fingers crossed that Chelsea will bear witness to Gerrard slipping up (sorry, had to) at the Ibrox this season.
3. Real Betis: Most dangerous team in the hipster bracket
Real Betis are very much the hipster’s team to watch this season. They boast an almost suicidal attacking style – albeit one that has collected zero wins and zero goals so far this year.
The squad is made up of a lot of above-average players who either have played or could be playing at bigger clubs, such as Marc Bartra, Antonio Sanabria, and the recently acquired William Carvalho.
They are a type of team Chelsea do not face regularly in the Premier League, where aggressively attacking mid-table sides don’t really exist, save for perhaps Wolves this season.
That combination of decent-yet-inconsistent talent and dedication to a certain philosophy could catch Chelsea off-guard, especially if Maurizio Sarri chooses to rotate for the Europa League matches.
All of that, mixed with the Estadio Benito Villamarin being a generally unpleasant venue for away teams, means Chelsea should be hoping to avoid a trip to Seville at all costs.
4. AC Milan: Plenty of sideshows
AC Milan are lucky to be in the Europa League in the first place, having originally been kicked out of the competition by UEFA due to financial concerns. Now that they are in, and with the competition for Champions League places in Serie A becoming more challenging, Gennaro Gattuso’s side will be desperate to make a deep run in the Europa League.
One of the main reasons they would be such an interesting matchup for Chelsea would be the presence of Gonzalo Higuain, who ended up in Milan despite Maurizio Sarri reportedly being desperate to bring him to London.
Higuain has been a prolific goalscorer in Serie A, both for Sarri at Napoli and at Juventus, but Chelsea were smart to avoid his massive price tag and increasing age.
That said, there’s every reason to think he would bag himself a hat trick against the Blues, just to spite the club that turned their noses up at him.
It would also be interesting to see Sarri’s Chelsea take on Italian opposition. Sarri’s style of play was obviously originally designed to succeed in Italian football, so putting this Sarri-fied Chelsea up against the type of opponent Sarri intended the system for would be well worth watching.