Espanyol will be aiming to become the third La Liga representative in the UEFA Europa League when they kick off the first leg of their play-off tie against Zorya Luhansk on Thursday night.
Story Behind the Game
David Gallego’s side finished seventh in La Liga last season to secure a spot in Europa League qualifying where, after wins against Stjarnan and Luzern, they find themselves two games away from joining Getafe and Sevilla in the group stages.
They have conceded just one goal in qualifying so far, in the 3-1 win away to Stjarnan, with 7-1 and 6-0 aggregate score-lines in an impressive run of form.
However, their La Liga campaign didn’t get off to the best of starts on Sunday, when goals from Sergio Regulion and Nolito led Sevilla to a 2-0 win at the RCDE Stadium.
Ukrainian opponents Zorya began their league campaign at the end of July with a 1-0 win over Vorskla Poltava and currently find themselves second in the table, behind Shakhtar Donetsk.
Their first qualification tie came before the league began though, with a 4-1 aggregate win over Buducnost of Montenegro. In the next round, they came up against Bulgarian opposition in the shape of CSKA Sofia who provided a tough test, but Zorya managed to sneak through 2-1 on aggregate.
Zorya faced Spanish opposition as recently as 2017/18 when they were in the same group as Athletic Club. They shocked the Basques by winning 1-0 at San Mames but goals from Aritz Aduriz and Raul Garcia saw Athletic win 2-0 in Ukraine.
Long term absentees David Lopez and Pablo Piatti are the only players that Gallego won’t have at his disposal on Thursday night, through injury.
There could however be starting berths for some of the new signings, including Bernardo and Ander Iturraspe.
For Zorya, striker Nazarii Rusyn will miss the trip to Spain following his red card against CSKA. Maksym Kazakov and Artem Hromov are also out of the tie, with both players injured.
Espanyol: Diego Lopez; Javi Lopez, Bernardo, Lluis Lopez, Vila; Melendo, Darder, Sanchez, Vargas; Lei, Campuzano
Zorya Luhansk: Shevchenko; Tymchyk, Vernydub, Abu Hanna, Mykhaylychenko; Kochergin, Yurchenko, Ivanisenya, Khomchenovskiy, Lednev; Budkivsky
Wu Lei vs Joel Abu Hanna
Chinese forward Wu Lei scored Espanyol’s quickest ever Europa League goal against Luzern in the last round and is one player that the Zorya defence will have to keep a close eye on. His pace will cause problems for the defenders and Hanna will have to be on his game to stop him. The young German has the stamina to keep up with the forward and if he can stop him, then Zorya could have a chance of earning a favourable result.
Bohdan Lednev vs Javi Lopez
Young attacker Lednev has been a bright spark for the Ukrainians so far this season and is a player they will look for to create chances on Thursday night. Javi Lopez has the experience to stop the winger and he will need to use that to keep his activity to a minimum. Lednev is full of confidence, however, and won’t be fazed by any challenges against him so he could be crucial in the away side’s chances of getting an away goal
What the Managers Have Said
David Gallego, Espanyol: "I regret the defeat (against Sevilla) but there are many positive things. We are in the construction phase. The team has faced and committed against an opponent made to enter the Champions League. Obviously, there are many things to improve ahead of Zorya, but I am very satisfied with the progression of the team”
Viktor Skripnik, Zorya Luhansk: “There are thrilling games when a coach is already on the brink. For me, the best way to play this game is to play calm, under control, to get to the next round.
“It is clear Espanyol will come to play, so what do we do? We go to play.”