MONACO – It's a long, perhaps not quite glamorous, road ahead, but the most prominent clubs in the Europa League appeared to get fairly straightforward assignments Friday when the draw for group stage play was made in Monaco.
Since the top two teams in each of the 12 groups advance to the knockout stage - where they are joined by the eight third place finishers from this fall's Champions League's groups - avoiding too much of a challenge at this stage clearly benefits the elite sides.
Tottenham Hotspur, after a strong Champions League performance a year ago, will be one of the favorites to win this second tier European club crown. They don't appear to have major problems in their group alongside Rubin Kazan, PAOK Salonika and the Irish League surprises, Shamrock Rovers.
Similarly, the newly wealthy Paris St.-Germain may be poised to make a European run after being drawn with Athletic Bilbao, Red Bull Salzburg and Slovan Bratislava in Group F. PSG ought to be able to navigate that section on the way to next spring's round when their rebuilt side should be hitting top form.
Lazio was not a top seed but their Group D opposition - Sporting Lisbon, FC Zurich and Vaslui -- suggests that the Rome Serie A power will advance, while the same should be said for Fulham and Stoke from the Premier League.
Neither of the Premier League sides were top-seeds - again thanks to UEFA's draw-seeding point system which credits past performance as much as current form. Stoke's Group E opponents, Dinamo Kyiv, Besiktas and Maccabi Tel-Aviv, are beatable. Fulham finds itself in Group K with FC Twente, Odense and Wisla Krakow, a road that the London team should negotiate safely.
There are some apparently wide-open sections: Group I, featuring Atletico Madrid, Udinese, Rennes and FC Sion might be the Europa League's group of death; Group B, with Kobenhavn, Standard Liege, Hannover 96 and Vorskla Poltava has no clear favorite; Group L, with Anderlecht, AEK Athens, Lokomotiv Moscow and Sturm Graz, also seems to lack a dominant team.
The two other top-seeded Dutch teams, PSV Eindhoven and AZ Alkmaar fared well. PSV is in Group C with Hapoel Tel-Aviv, Rapid Bucharest and Legia Warsaw, while AZ heads Group G and will face Metallist Kharkiv, Austria Wien and Malmo.
Bundesliga power Schalke 04 also looks safe, heading Group J where they will play Steaua Bucharest, Maccabi Haifa and AEK Athens. Portuguese League up-and-comer Sporting Braga should advance from Group H where Club Brugge, English Championship side Birmingham City and Maribor complete the field.
Group play starts on September 15.