It may be without crowds, but yes, at least we have European play beginning again, as Villarreal host Turkish side Sivasspor to kick off our 2020-2021 Europa League campaign.
It’s the first time these two teams have met, and only the third time we’ve played a Turkish side in the group stage (Trabzonspor in 2003-04, Osmanlispor in 2016/17). As for Sivasspor, this is the first time they’ve been in Europe at all.
They’re coached by Riza Çalimbay, whom some of you who are old enough might remember played for Besiktas from 1980-1996 and also was a Turkish international. He’s a native of the city of Sivas, and this is his second spell incharge of his hometown side. He’s spent nearly 20 years as a manager—like his playing career, all of it in Turkey.
They’ve mostly played a 4-2-3-1 so far this season (two wins and a draw in four matches), are good on set pieces and cross the ball a lot, but they haven’t scored much so far.
Their roster is a mix of Turkish veterans who have spent their careers in Turkey—defender Ziya Erdal has been with Sivasspor for 10 years—and African players, many of whom have played in France. The most familiar of these to La Liga fans would be Moroccan international Faycal Fajr, who has played in La Liga with Elche, Depor and Getafe, and Ivory Coast native Arouna Koné, who played for Sevilla and Levante years ago.
According to Whoscored, their best players so far have been Fajr, Erdal, Mustapha Yayabaré, a tall attacker who is good in the air, and Max-Alain Gradel, another Ivory Coast player who is an attacking midfielder.
Normally, these first few group stage matches are ones where Villarreal’s coach will rotate a lot, but this year rotations will be enforced through injury. Gerard, Estupiñan and Dani Parejo are all out. Ruben Peña has been injured—not sure what his status is—and Paco Alcacer picked up a knock against Valencia.
So, I’d look for players like Carlos Bacca, Manu Trigueros, Funes Mori, Juan Foyth to see playing time over the next couple of EL matches. And this should be a time for players like Kubo and Samu Chukwueze to shine, maybe even Fer Niño.
Prediction: Villarreal 3-1, let’s say.