Of all Italian sides in the Europa League, there can be little doubt AC Milan got the best deal from the draw.
The Rossoneri, with their rich history of European glory, will face Austria Wien, AEK Athens and Croatian champions HNK Rijeka. Both Rijeka and Austria Wien will be unfamiliar opponents for the Milanese outfit, but AEK Athens have featured against the Rossoneri on four occasions in European competition.
Athens will also hold a special place in the hearts of Milan fans as the location for the 2007 Champions League final, where Milan were able to exact revenge on Liverpool for defeating them in the final two years prior.
The Greek side are also something of a lucky charm for the Rossoneri, having reached the final of the Champions League on the two occasions they faced them in the group stage.
With a new-look Milan side that features the likes of Hakan Calhanoglu, Nikola Kalinic and Leonardo Bonucci most will be anticipating an easy route to the Round of 32. Crucially, from Milan’s perspective, their opponents are situated within relatively close proximity to Italy.
While the rewards of the Europa League have always been evident, the demand on teams with lengthy journey’s to-and-from games has made the competition something of a poisoned chalice.
This element, coupled with Serie A commitments most weekends, has seen Italian sides wilt in recent installments of the tournament. Milan may yet struggle with the sudden return of midweek fixtures, but certainly they have benefited from a very favourable draw.
Lazio may not have fared as well as their northern rivals, but they will be confident of advancing in a group containing Vitesse, OGC Nice and Belgian side Zulte Waregem.
The standout name would be Nice, who, with Wesley Sneijder and Mario Balotelli in tow, faced Napoli in the playoff stage for the Champions League.
After 2-0 defeats both home and away, Lucien Favre’s side were forced to settle for Europa League football; a disappointing outcome having beaten the odds and finished third in Ligue 1 last season.
Zulte Waregem may not resonate with many a football fan, but for Jordan Lukaku, the plucky Belgian side from Flanders was the opposition he faced on his competitive debut for Anderlecht. He would later remark the occasion was the “best day of his life.”
Vitesse complete Group K as the competitions only Dutch team, with a strong connection with both Chelsea and youth development. With the likes of former Serie A strikers Tim Matavz and Luc Castaignos in their ranks, the Biancocelesti will have to be on their guard to avoid any upsets.
Lazio are among the country’s more regular competitors in the Europa League, with this their sixth participation in the tournament since the 2009/10 season. However, the Rome based side have also suffered with premature exits from the competition.
The 2014-14 campaign saw them lose to Ludogorets in the Round of 32 and then to Sparta Prague in the quarter-finals of the 2015/16 season. Simone Inzaghi will be hoping all this is behind them.
Atalanta, as one of the surprise packages of Serie A last campaign, have been desperately unfortunate in the Europa League draw with Everton, Lyon and Apollon Limassol as opponents. With commitments of league and cup competitions to juggle, the hectic schedule of traveling to and from their European fixtures could take a toll on the Bergamo side.
Worse still, the spirited performances that guided Atalanta to fourth in Serie A last season will be difficult to replicate, particularity with the departure of key figures such as Franck Kessie and Andrea Conti. Both Lyon and Everton, with their reputations as top flight teams and with commendable records in European competitions, will be expected to proceed to the Round of 32.
Apollon look something of an unknown commodity, but in fact have a compelling history of European football involvement. They faced Inter in the 1993/94 installment of the UEFA Cup, losing 1-0 at the Stadio Giuseppe Meazza but miraculously finishing their home tie 3-3.
More recently they have locked horns with Lazio in the 2013/14 Europa League group stage and made another appearance in the competition in 2014/15. Atalanta will be hopeful of getting the better of the Cyprian side, and with favourable results elsewhere they could yet qualify for the Round of 32.