2017-2018 Europa League

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Swedish club Ostersund finds success on and off soccer field

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BERLIN (AP) More famous for snow sports like cross-country skiing and biathlon, the “Winter City” of Ostersund is making quite a name for itself on the soccer field.

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The club from the northern Swedish city has progressed so quickly that even reaching the last 32 of the Europa League isn’t enough for everyone.

“I’m a little bit low and down because we wanted to win the group and we didn’t do that,” Ostersunds FK chairman Daniel Kindberg told The Associated Press after his team was held to a 1-1 draw at Hertha Berlin. “I expected us to win the group and I expected us to be among the first seeds in the draw, but unfortunately we are not.”

Expectations like that were unthinkable only a few years ago.

Ostersund was formed in 1996 following the amalgamation of three local clubs. After more than a decade in the third division, the team was relegated in 2010, when Kindberg quit amid bickering at the boardroom level. He went back after the players threatened to quit, too.

When Kindberg returned, he sought backing from local companies and appointed Graham Potter, a former defender from England, as coach. Potter led the team to promotion in his first season, and then again to the second division in his next. The team reached Sweden’s top division in 2015.

“Graham is very important as a coach, manager, friend, brother. He has fantastic leadership. He’s one of a kind, one of the absolute most promising managers in Europe, no doubt about it,” Kindred said. “I said that five years ago that he was Scandinavia’s best manager and now he’s been selected two years in a row, the best manager in Sweden. So I think I know what I’m talking about.”

This season, Ostersund is playing in the Europa League for the first time. The team qualified for Europe’s second-tier club competition by winning the Swedish Cup.

The team’s success has continued, finishing second in Group J and earning a spot in the next round. With a group of unknowns and players rejected by other clubs, Ostersund became the first Swedish team since Helsingborg in 2007 to reach the knockout stages of the Europa League or UEFA Cup.

Kindberg, a former army man, acknowledged it’s been a “good” year, but added he was disappointed with the team’s fifth-place finish in the Swedish league.

“We’re going for the championship,” Kindberg said at a team party following Thursday’s draw at Hertha, adding he is looking to make it a treble by also winning another Swedish Cup and the Europa League.

Part of the team’s success has to do with its off-the-field activities.

While Potter takes care of the soccer, Kindred said the club has “five key individuals” who look after other aspects, including the social side and the cultural productions.

The team has staged art exhibitions, written books, helped refugees, made sure local women get home safely at night, and last year players performed Tchaikovsky’s “Swan Lake” ballet on stage. Two weeks ago, they produced a show celebrating the Sami people, the native reindeer herders from across Lapland.

“It was fantastic, absolutely fantastic,” said Kindred, explaining the reason behind the stage productions. “It’s a training method in decision-making and courage. That’s what it really is.”

Some players, however, took some convincing when the methods were first introduced.

“I said, `It’s OK, it’s fine. We respect you fully, but you have to play somewhere else.’ So that’s it. They didn’t object anymore,” Kindred said. “Everybody thinks football is about passing the ball, tactics. That’s a small part of football. The big part is the mental game, and the war to win the hearts and minds of people. That’s what football’s about.”

The social work undertaken by the club is just as important as the cultural or sporting side. Kindred said it’s part of Ostersund’s holistic approach.

“To take a stand for rightful things, for poor people, for people in danger, for human rights, it’s very important for us, because everyone wants to do good,” he said. “We started this path six years ago. We decided at that time it was important for us, for our identity. Our war against evil and bad things in society. We show that on the pitch, and we try and show it off the pitch. We try to do our best every day.”

The work off the field is even bringing in new fans.

Birgitta Karlsson said she was never interested in soccer until this year, but she travelled 23 hours by train and boat to see the team play in Berlin.

“There’s something really special with them,” Karlsson said. “They are good ambassadors for young people, for old people, for friendship, for being kind to each other, for children.”

Of the 15,686 spectators at the Olympic Stadium on Thursday, about a quarter provided noisy support for Ostersund. After the game, the visiting players lined up in front of them and led a “Viking clap,” staying long afterward to continue the party.

“We are at the beginning of a journey that we hope will change the world and we hope will change things,” Kindberg said. “We have no limits at all. Every year, the Euro league is to be won. Every year, the Champions League is to be won. We need to be champions because that’s what we are.

“It’s easy. Football is the easiest game on Earth. It is people who complicate it. We try to be simple.”

Europa League preview: Arsenal looks to wrap up Group H and more

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While several teams have already booked their place in the knockout phase, the Europa League reaches its penultimate round on Thursday with many big matches in hand.

[ MORE: Yannick Bolasie finally returns to Everton training ]

Of the two Premier League sides in the competition, only one will advance to the Round of 32, as Arsenal have all but assured themselves of the top spot in Group H. The Gunners can do so tomorrow with a win over Koln or a Red Star Belgrade defeat.

The other end of the spectrum features Everton, who has already been eliminated from reaching the next round after acquiring just one point in its first four matches.

European giants AC Milan can lock up a spot in the knockout phase on Thursday despite the club’s ongoing struggles in Serie A, while fellow Italian side Atalanta can move a step closer to the Round of 32 in Group E along with Lyon.

Here’s the full rundown of Thursday’s UEL matches.

Astana vs. Villareal — 11 a.m. ET
Konyaspor vs. Marseille — 1 p.m. ET
Rosenborg vs. Real Sociedad — 1 p.m. ET
Lazio vs. Vitesse — 1 p.m. ET
Viktoria Plzen vs. Steaua Bucuresti — 1 p.m. ET
Lokomotiv vs. Copenhagen — 1 p.m. ET
Zenit vs. Vardar — 1 p.m. ET
Red Bull Salzburg vs. Vitoria — 1 p.m. ET
Athletic Bilbao vs. Hertha Berlin — 1 p.m. ET
BATE vs. Red Star Belgrade — 1 p.m. ET
Ostersund vs. Zorya — 1 p.m. ET
Koln vs. Arsenal — 1 p.m. ET
Nice vs. Zulte Waregem — 1 p.m. ET
Lugano vs. Beer-Sheva — 1 p.m. ET
Ludogorets vs. Istanbul — 3:05 p.m. ET
Braga vs. Hoffenheim — 3:05 p.m. ET
AEK vs. Rijeka — 3:05 p.m. ET
AC Milan vs. Austria Wien — 3:05 p.m. ET
Lyon vs. Apollon — 3:05 p.m. ET
Maccabi Tel Aviv vs. Slavia Praha — 3:05 p.m. ET
Sheriff vs. Zlin — 3:05 p.m. ET
Partizan vs. Young Boys — 3:05 p.m. ET
Skenderbeu vs. Dynamo Kyiv — 3:05 p.m. ET
Everton vs. Atalanta — 3:05 p.m. ET

Europa League roundup: Five clubs book place in Round of 32, Everton done

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Two English sides entered this season’s UEFA Europa League, but that number has dwindled down to one following Thursday’s action.

Everton was eliminated from advancing to the Round of 32, after David Unsworth‘s side suffered a 3-0 defeat against Lyon. Through four matches, the Toffees have picked up just one point.

[ MORE: Patrice Evra sent off for kicking fan prior to Marseille match ]

Meanwhile, Arsenal reached the knockout phase with a scoreless draw against Red Star Belgrade at the Emirates Stadium.

The Gunners weren’t the only side to qualify for the next round though, as Dynamo Kiev, Steaua Bucuresti, Lazio and Zenit all found their way into the Round of 32.

In one of the more unexpected and wild events you’ll see in a soccer match, Patrice Evra was sent off prior to Marseille’s match against Vitoria Guimaraes. Marseille ultimately fell 1-0 with Evra’s presence missed on the back line.

Below are all of Thursday’s scores from around the Europa League.

Group A

Maccabi Tel-Aviv 0-1 Astana
Slavia Prague 0-2 Villareal

Group B

Partizan 2-0 Skenderbeu
Young Boys 0-1 Dynamo Kyiv

Group C

Ludogorets 1-1 SC Braga
Istanbul Basaksehir 1-1 TSG Hoffenheim

Group D

AEK Athens 0-0 AC Milan
Rijeka 1-4 Austria Vienna

Group E

Apollon Limassol 1-1 Atalanta
Lyon 3-0 Everton

Group F

Copenhagen 3-0 Fastav Zlin
Lokomotiv Moscow 1-2 Sheriff

Group G

Viktoria Plzen 2-1 Lugano
Steaua Bucharest vs. Hapoel Beer Sheva

Group H

Arsenal 0-0 Red Star Belgrade
Cologne 5-2 BATE

Group I

Red Bull Salzburg 0-0 Konyaspor
Guimaraes 1-0 Marseille

Group J

Athletic Bilbao 1-0 Ostersunds
Hertha Berlin 2-0 Zorya Luhansk

Group K

Lazio 1-0 Nice
Vitesse 0-2 Zulte-Waregem

Group L

Real Sociedad 3-0 Vardar
Rosenborg 1-1 Zenit St. Petersburg

Gunners reach Europa League knockout phase

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Arsene Wenger and Co. would’ve liked to have scored, but Arsenal still managed to book their place in the UEFA Europa League knockout round.

[ MORE: Everton eliminated from UEL after falling 3-0 to Lyon ]

The Gunners settled for a 0-0 draw against Red Star Belgrade on Thursday at the Emirates Stadium, with Arsenal currently topping Group H with 10 points through its first four matches in this season’s competition.

Wenger put out a largely inexperienced squad once again in the competition as the French manager continues to experiment with some of his younger players.

The Gunners certainly had their share of chances on the day, but Belgrade’s defense held strong in the key moments to preserve the draw.

Jack Wilshere had one of the best opportunities for the hosts after the hour mark when he shot appeared destined to go in the Belgrade goal, however, defender Damien Le Tallec’s timely goal-line clearance kept Arsenal off the board.

Next up for Arsenal in the Europa League will be Cologne on Nov. 23, while Belgrade will take on BATE Borisov that same day.

Patrice Evra sent off before Europa League match begins (Video)

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Patrice Evra put himself in the record books on Thursday, but probably not for something he had previously hoped to accomplish.

[ MORE: Everton eliminated from Europa League play after falling to Lyon ]

The Marseille defender was sent off for the club’s UEFA Europa League match… before the game actually began.

Evra, 36, was visibly seen swinging his left leg towards a fan after several Marseille players were confronted by Vitoria Guimarães supporters prior to kick off.

It is unclear as to what words were exchanged during the encounter, or what prompted the situation, but it’s certainly a bad optic for all parties involved.

Per OptaJean, Evra became the first player in Europa League history to be sent off before kick off.