Date: 31st August 2016 at 2:53am
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Following the Europa League Group Stage draw that pitted Southampton against Inter Milan, Sparta Prague and Hapoel Be’er Sheva, Alex gives us a run down on our opposition.

After what felt like an eternal wait of three months, the draw for the group stages of the UEFA Europa League has taken place and has thrown up some tasty ties for Saints fans to look forward to. Games against Italian giants Inter Milan, Sparta Prague of the Czech Republic and Israel`s Hapoel Be`er Sheva await and here we will look at all three clubs in more detail.

The top seeded team in Group K, Inter Milan will need little introduction. Sharing the 80,018 capacity San Siro with fierce rivals AC Milan, the Italians have an illustrious history and despite a slight dip in recent years can be considered one of the world`s biggest clubs. They have won three Champions League titles, most recently in 2010 and three Europa League trophies, all in the 1990s. Eighteen Serie A titles and seven Coppa Italias can also be found in the Nerazzurri`s trophy cabinet alongside five Italian Supercoppas – Italy`s equivalent of the Community Shield. They have previously won the Intercontinental Cup twice and complete their honours list with the 2010 Club World Cup.

One of the names in the frame to replace Ronald Koeman at St. Marys recently, Frank De Boer is the new manager of Inter replacing Roberto Mancini at the helm. Mancini needs no introduction to Premier League fans, nor do many other recent managers at the club. Watford boss Walter Mazzarri, Newcastle`s Rafa Benitez, Manchester United manager Jose Mourinho – in charge during Inter`s 2010 Champions League win – and 2016 Premier League champion Claudio Ranieri have all managed the side since 2008 whilst recently-departed England manager Roy Hodgson had two brief spells there in the ’90s.

Lothar Mattheus, Zlatan Ibrahimovic, Samuel Eto`o, Ronaldo and club legend Javier Zanetti are among the biggest names to pull on the famous black and blue stripes. These days, the names aren`t quite as impressive but by no means are they bad players. Mauro Icardi has top scored for the past two seasons whilst Croatian winger Ivan Perisic and 2014 Champions League runner-up Miranda are also key players. Recent links between Inter and Southampton are not ones Saints fans will want to hear too many reminders of. Footballer-turned-fighter Dani Osvaldo had a loan spell at the Italians after headbutting Jose Fonte in training, one which was not made permanent after an altercation with Icardi. Midfielder Saphir Taider joined Southampton on loan for the 2014/15 season but you could be forgiven for failing to remember that one. He returned to Italy less than a month later having made his sole Saints appearance in a friendly against Bayer Leverkusen. The reason given for the Algerian`s premature departure was that he “failed to live up to the high levels of commitment expected of Southampton players.”

Inter finished 4th in Serie A last season, their highest finish since 2nd in 2010/11.

Next up is Czech Republic top flight runners-up Sparta Prague. Managed by Zdenek Scasny, they play in the 19,416 capacity Generali Arena in the Czech capital of Prague. They have won the Czech First League on thirty-three occasions and the Czech Cup fourteen times with two Czech Supercups to their name. They won all three trophies in 2014, the last occasion they lifted any silverware. A 1992 run to the European Cup semi-finals was their greatest achievement in continental competition. Sparta were also drawn in Group K of last season`s Europa League where an unbeaten campaign of three wins and three draws saw them progress as runners-up behind German giants Schalke. A convincing 4-0 aggregate victory over Russian side Krasnodar in the last 32 was followed by an arguably even more impressive win as Italians Lazio were knocked out with Sparta winning 3-0 in Italy and 4-1 on aggregate. The Czech side`s progress was halted with a 6-3 defeat over two legs against Villarreal in the quarter finals. David Lafata top scored with five goals in the competition, he was also one of five Sparta players called up for the Czech Republic`s Euro 2016 final squad.

Notable players to have been at Sparta Prague include Manchester City striker Wilfried Bony who played for the club before joining Dutch side Vitesse Arnhem in 2011. Arsenal goalkeeper Petr Cech and former Gunners midfielder Tomas Rosicky also had spells with Sparta. Czech legends Pavel Nedved, Jan Koller and Karel Poborsky are other members of the Sparta alumni. One link to Southampton is that of striker Tomas Pekhart. The ex-Tottenham man made nine appearances during a loan spell at St. Marys in 2008 where he netted once. His spell at Sparta on loan from domestic rivals Jablonec proved slightly more fruitful in 2011 as he struck seven times in the same amount of appearances.

Last but not least are Israeli side Hapoel Be`er Sheva. Champions of the Israeli Premier League last season, the Camels play in the 16,126 capacity Turner Stadium in their home city of Beersheba, a ground they only moved into a year ago. Their title last season was their first since 1976 and only their third in total. They have won the Israeli State Cup once and the Toto Cup on two occasions. The State Cup is the equivalent of the FA Cup and is the main cup competition in Israel whereas the Toto Cup is taken less seriously and is often seen by Israeli sides as an opportunity to field fringe players and youth. Be`er Sheva have won a few other minor titles and lifted the Supercup this year, but have a much less impressive trophy collection than Saints` other two group rivals.

Managed by Barak Bakhar, Be`er Sheva will be best known for their recent Champions League play-off tie against Celtic. Despite a 5-2 defeat in Scotland, they won 2-0 in Israel although this was not enough to overturn the three-goal deficit from the first leg. Many Saints fans will see Celtic as a feeder club having taken their three best players in recent years – Victor Wanyama, Fraser Forster and Virgil Van Dijk arriving in consecutive seasons. On this basis they will be confident they have the quality required to take six points off their Israeli opponents.

One similarity between Be`er Sheva and Saints is the fact that both clubs have female owners. Katharina Liebherr`s Israeli counterpart is Alona Barkat, one of a very small number of women in charge of top-tier football clubs. Be`er Sheva has had very few players which are likely to be known in England, one who some Saints fans may recognise however is Ben Sahar. The striker came through Chelsea`s academy and had loan spells at QPR, Sheffield Wednesday and Portsmouth, although he only made a handful of appearances in England and none at all at Saints` South Coast rivals.

Whilst Inter are still a very good side, they are not the invincible team they may have seemed in the Mourinho days back in 2010. Having beaten Manchester United, Manchester City, Tottenham, Arsenal, Liverpool and Chelsea last season, Saints have shown they can do it against big teams. Victor Wanyama, Sadio Mane and Graziano Pelle may have left, but the majority of players remain from last year and have the quality to beat Inter if they play at their best. Sparta Prague is a team not to be underestimated, by thrashing Lazio so comprehensively last year the Czech side have shown themselves to be worthy of respect. Likewise Hapoel Be`er Sheva. The Israelis may be the underdogs, but any team to make it through to the group stages of European competition should be taken seriously. It isn`t the easiest group Saints could have hoped for but it certainly isn`t the hardest. Exciting times lie ahead for the red and white half of Hampshire.

Alex

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