Whether you think the Europa League is Fiorentina's best chance for silverware this year, a chance for some fun and prestigious matchups otherwise unavailable, or a waste of time for an ambitious squad with limited depth, it's hard not to get at least a little excited about it. Fiorentina, on the strength of their coefficient, were the highest-seeded Italian team in the draw, meaning they avoided most of the real heavy hitters and were instead drawn into Group J. Let's meet the opposition.
Panthessalonikios Athlitikos Omilos Konstantinoupoliton (usually shortened to PAOK or PAOK Thessaloniki, thank heavens) are the team from Pot 2. Based in Thessaloniki--the second largest city in Greece and former co-capital of the Byzantine Empire--the "Double Headed Eagle of the North" (which may also be a metal band) play in the intimidatingly named Toumba Stadium, which has a capacity 28,703. Founded in 1926 (they're celebrating their 90th as well), they've twice won the Greek Superleague, and have 4 domestic cups as well. Their best Europa League (or UEFA Cup, as it was then) performance came in 1973, when they made the quarterfinals. Manager Vladimir Ivic is a PAOK lifer who favors a stereotypically Greek 3-5-2 formation, although he's also used a 4-2-3-1; his approach against Fiorentina will probably involve a deep defense and quick counter attacks. The dangermen are probably the pacey, direct Angolan winger Djalma and Greek international and club captain Stefanos Athanasiadis, who's strong, versatile, and tireless.
Located in lovely Liberec, which is Czechia's fifth-largest city and located just south of the Polish border, the Modrobili (Blue-Whites) are one of the nation's most successful teams of the past couple of decades, with 3 league trophies and a domestic cup since 1993. Manager Jindrich Trpisovsky generally uses either a 4-2-3-1 or a 4-3-3, with the wingers dropping back to protect the fullbacks and the strikers working the channels, then laying the ball off to the onrushing midfielders; as this approach tends to work well against Fiorentina, Tripisovsky is unlikely to alter it. Some guys to watch are rampaging rightback Vladimir Coufal (who has 2 goals in qualifying), promising midfielder Jan Sykora (hat-trick in qualifying), and veteran striker Milan Baros (lost a step at 34, but still crafty as they come).
The Azerbaijani powerhouse's name is roughly pronounced GATR-a-barh. Exiled from their home city of Agdam in 1993 due to the Nagorno-Karabakh War, they're now based in the capital Baku, where they play in the 31,200-seat Tofiq Bahramov Stadium. Formed in 1951, they've never been relegated, winning the league 4 times and the domestic cup 5. As last year's champions, they were booted from the Champions League qualifiers early, but made their way to the Europa group stages in the playoff against Goteborg. Manager Gurban Gurbanov is a former national team star and usually uses a 4-3-3 with the wingers dropping deep before springing forward to beat their men and get the ball in to the striker. The dangermen are Macedonian winger Muarem Muarem and Brazilian striker (and second all-time leading scorer for the club) Reynaldo, who's a slippery penalty box operator.
Ted's Memorial Blind Guess Department
The group stage schedule hasn't been released, but that's not stopping us from making uniformed predictions. The Viola are stronger on paper than all 3 of these opponents, so 7 to 9 points at the Franchi are both likely and necessary. At PAOK's roiling and intense stadium, a draw would be acceptable, and the distance to Baku makes a point an acceptable outcome there, too. Overall, then, I'm going to predict 3 wins at the Franchi, a win in Liberec, and draws in Thessaloniki and Baku (the latter of which will probably feature a Primavera-heavy squad), for a group-winning 14 points. Of course, this club is more than capable of stumbling at crucial moments, so a second-place finish wouldn't surprise, although it sure would frustrate.