ACF Fiorentina, Eintracht Frankfurt, PFC Ludogorets Razgrad, FC Salzburg and Tottenham Hotspur FC have emerged as the teams to beat going into UEFA Europa League matchday four, with all five within sight of the round of 32.
Those five sides won their first three group stage games and will be certain of reaching the knockout phase if they prevail on 7 November. However, as if extra motivation were needed, Eintracht, Ludogorets and Tottenham could also still break a record: with each of this trio yet to concede, no club has ever got through a UEFA Europa League group with six clean sheets. The record of one goal against was set by R. Standard de Liège in 2011/12.
As they prepare to face an FC Sheriff outfit who have never won away in this competition, Group K leaders Tottenham seem to have everything going for them. Led by the only coach in the tournament who has won the UEFA Europa League previously, André Villas-Boas, they also boast the campaign's joint-top scorer – Jermain Defoe, tied on four goals with Salzburg's Jonatan Soriano – and the best disciplinary record in the group stage, one yellow card received and no reds.
The achievement of Stoicho Stoev's Ludogorets may be greater still, however. The Group B pacesetters, who are at home to FC Chornomorets Odesa this time out, have already beaten PSV Eindhoven and GNK Dinamo Zagreb, clubs whose European experience completely dwarfs their own. The two-time Bulgarian champions were only promoted to their A League for the first time in 2010/11 and this is just their second season in European competition.
A lack of continental know-how has proved telling for some teams. Of the four sides playing in Europe for the first time this term, three – FC Kuban Krasnodar, Estoril Praia and CS Pandurii Târgu Jiu – have picked up just one point each, though Wigan Athletic FC have bucked that trend with a victory and two draws from their Group D matches. However, their next challenge is a big one: they visit the group stage's ten-goal leading marksmen, FC Rubin Kazan, who have not lost in their last 22 UEFA fixtures in Tatarstan.
Wigan's trip to Kazan is around 3,300km, yet it is not the only long-haul flight scheduled for matchday four. In Group K, FC Anji Makhachkala are heading 3,400km, and inside the Arctic Circle, to strugglers Tromsø IL, while the most easterly club ever to compete in a group stage – Kazakhstan's FC Shakhter Karagandy – have a longer voyage still. With Shakhter playing their European home games in Astana, AZ Alkmaar had to go a UEFA group-stage-record 4,400km to earn their 1-1 Group L draw on 24 October. The return journey – Karaganda to Alkmaar – is 4,600km. One can only hope coach Viktor Kumykov has told his players to pack a good book.
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