In depth: Getting to know Roma’s opponents for the 2022-23 Europa League group stage

Roma will be up against three sides they have never met competitively before in the group stage of the 2022-23 Europa League.

The draw has grouped them with Real Betis from Spain, Ludogorets from Bulgaria, and HJK Helsinki from Finland. Each away trip will represent Roma going to uncharted territory, while they will be hoping to keep up their positive home record in European competition to progress.

Roma will have to win the group to advance straight to the round of 16. If they come second, they would have to navigate a play-off tie against someone who came third in a Champions League group; if they come third, they would drop down into the Europa Conference League, which they of course are the reigning champions of.

This season’s target is to go further in UEFA’s secondary tournament, but it will all start with six group matches. With each of the three sides a new opponent for Roma, here is a little bit more about each one.

Real Betis

How they qualified: After beating Roma in pre-season last year, Manuel Pellegrini’s side went on to finish one place outside the Champions League zone in the 2021-22 La Liga, falling five points short of city rivals Sevilla. As a result of their fifth-place finish, they qualified automatically for the Europa League group stage.

Last European campaign: 2021-22 Europa League, round of 16

Betis were in this competition last season too, once again entering in the group stage. They came second, behind Bayer Leverkusen, in their pool, before beating Zenit Saint Petersburg in a play-off to reach the round of 16. It was to be their final hurdle, though, as they were then eliminated by Eintracht Frankfurt, who went on to win the whole thing.

Furthest stage ever reached: Europa League round of 16

The Spaniards are no strangers to making it beyond the group stage of European competitions and will be Roma’s main challengers for top spot. However, the round of 16 is the furthest they have ever gone in this tournament, doing so on four occasions when it was the UEFA Cup and twice since as the Europa League. Before the restructuring of European tournaments, they were twice quarter-finalists in the UEFA Cup Winners’ Cup.

Previous record against Italian teams: 3W 1D 2L

Betis’ first ever European opponents were actually Italian; they beat AC Milan on aggregate in the first round of the 1977-78 UEFA Cup Winners’ Cup despite losing the away leg.

In 1998-99, they were knocked out of the UEFA Cup in the third round by Bologna, again after winning at home and losing away but this time by a bigger margin when it came to the latter.

Most recently, they faced Milan again in the 2018-19 Europa League group stage, drawing at home and then winning on Italian soil for the first time.

Mourinho’s record against: 4W 2L

Back in his days with Real Madrid, Jose Mourinho did the double over Betis in the 2011-12 season before losing away and winning at home the following term. Prior to that, the manager took them on with Chelsea in the group stage of the 2005-06 Champions League, winning 4-0 in England and losing 1-0 in Spain.

Familiar players: None of the teams in Roma’s group have a native Italian player in their squad, nor anyone who used to represent La Magica. However, there are some familiar faces from elsewhere in Serie A. This summer, Betis signed ex-rival Luiz Felipe after he left Lazio, while former Fiorentina pair German Pezzella and Joaquin – still playing at the age of 41 – are among their ranks.

Ludogorets

How they qualified: Champions of the Bulgarian league in 2021-22, Ludogorets proceeded to win two Champions League qualifying rounds – including against Irish side Shamrock Rovers – but lost the third versus Dinamo Zagreb to drop into the play-off, where they beat Zalgiris from Lithuania.

Last European campaign: 2021-22 Europa League, group stage

Like Betis, Ludogorets were in last season’s group stage, but unlike the Seville-based side, they did not make it through. After winning three Champions League qualifiers, they lost a play-off to drop into the Europa League, but finished bottom of their group behind Red Star, Braga and Midtjylland.

Furthest stage ever reached: Europa League round of 16

The club from Razgrad have reached the round of 32 in the Europa League on four occasions, coincidentally meeting an Italian side on all but one of those times. The only one they ever made it past was Lazio in the 2013-14 season, before Valencia beat them 4-0 on aggregate in the next round. Above the Europa League, they have reached the Champions League group stage twice before.

Previous record against Italian teams: 1W 1D 4L

As stated, Ludogorets have crossed paths with a few Italian sides, but a 3-3 draw and 1-0 win over Lazio were the only games in which they avoided defeat. Each Milan club made lighter work of them when meeting in subsequent editions.

Mourinho’s record against: 2W

Mourinho met Ludogorets when he was Tottenham Hotspur manager in the 2020-21 Europa League. Drawn in the same group, Spurs won both matches against the Bulgarians: 3-1 away and 4-0 at home.

Familiar players: There are none particularly of note but they do have a player called Cicinho in their squad. But no, it isn’t that one.

HJK Helsinki

How they qualified: After winning the Finnish league in 2021, HJK won their first Champions League qualifying round against RFS but lost the next to Viktoria Plzen, another side Roma have played in Europe in recent memory. Dropping into the secondary tournament, they won the third qualifying round of the Europa League against Maribor before beating Silkeborg from Denmark in the play-offs to reach the group stage.

Last European campaign: 2021-22, Europa Conference League group stage

HJK actually played in all three of UEFA’s tournaments last season. Setting off in the Champions League, they won one qualifying round but then dropped into the Europa League, in which they also progressed past one round before losing a play-off. It put them into the Europa Conference League, in which they finished third in their group behind LASK and Maccabi Tel Aviv.

Furthest stage ever reached: Europa League group stage

HJK are seasoned European qualifiers, but without much impact when arriving on that stage. They have been in the Europa League group stage just once before, in 2014-15. On that occasion, they placed third, and there was no Conference League to drop into back then. They have actually made it to the Champions League group stage before, but were eliminated on that attempt in the 1998-99 season, and previously only made it as far as the second round of the old European Cup.

Previous record against Italian teams: 1W 5L

HJK have had three pairings with Italian teams in Europe. First, they lost both legs of a 1989-90 European Cup clash with Milan, without scoring in either. Next came a UEFA Cup first-round defeat to Parma in 2001-02, again without ever finding the net. Most recently, they met Torino in the 2014-15 Europa League group stage, winning at home and losing in Italy.

Mourinho’s record against: Roma’s manager has overseen matches in many countries and against many clubs, but HJK will be a new one for him to pit his wits against.

Familiar players: Perhaps surprisingly, there is a familiar face for the Scandinavian outfit. Perparim Hetemaj is formerly of four Italian clubs, most notably Chievo over a lengthy spell. After leaving Italian football behind for the first time in over a decade when he ended his association with Reggina this year, he headed back to his first ever club.

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