The most laboriously labyrinthine competition in football – Brazil’s myriad state championships may be the dishonourable exception – resumed last week. The UEFA Europa League remains much-maligned in many circles and, despite its glossy re-launch last year, is still regarded as the snotty smaller brother of the handsome, bronzed beefcake that is the Champions League.
That’s a shame, because, for the discerning viewer, there’s a fair share of footballing thrills and spills to be had on the day following club football’s main event. For every side that treats the competition as an irritating, fixture-clogging afterthought there’s another around whose primary hopes of glory rest mostly on the outcome of midweek trips to Basel, Berne or Braga. Now that we’ve (finally) reached the last 32, several clubs have shifted the competition up their list of priorities and, following last week’s return from a brief winter hibernation, that’s made for some intriguing second-leg ties during the course of the next two days.
Porto stole a late 2-1 victory over their closely-matched Iberian rivals Sevilla at the Sanchez Pizjuan; scene of the launchpad for their most stratospheric period in recent history – a controversial win over Celtic in the 2003 UEFA Cup Final. The Dragons’ much-coveted coach Andre Villas-Boas has so far mirrored the ascent of Jose Mourinho to an almost spooky extent and his impressive young side have dominated domestically this season, as well as winning all five of their away games in the Europa League so far. Featuring nimble Colombian striker Falcao (top scorer in the EL group stage) and the often unplayable Hulk up front, the craft of Joao Moutinho in midfield and newly-consistent ‘keeper Helton marshalling the defence, Porto are deservedly among the favourites to emulate the heroes of ’03 by triumphing at Dublin’s Aviva Stadium in May.
Should they finish off the job on Wednesday, they’ll be the second Portugese team (after Braga, whom Porto beat 2-0 at the weekend to keep their Primeira Liga lead at 11pts) to knock Sevilla out of a European competition this season. Sevilla have been infuriatingly inconsistent in La Liga, but bargain-buy Ivan Rakitic (at £1.3m from Schalke) has immediately impressed; setting up Fredi Kanoute’s first leg header, then scoring the winner against Hercules last Sunday. Kanoute and Luis Fabiano, who endured a brief but unsuccessful spell at the Dragao before his move to Spain, were profligate in the home tie but remain, along with the deliciously talented Jesus Navas, Sevilla’s best hopes of a second-leg turnaround. However, the inexplicably shambolic defending which gifted Freddy Guarin last week’s winner means the back-to-back UEFA Cup winners face an uphill struggle. Kick-off is at 5pm, so this tie will provide an appetising aperitif for Inter-Bayern, Man U-Marseille, or Lewes-Ebbsfleet, if you’re that way inclined. A tough tie with CSKA Moscow awaits the victors.
Struggling Stuttgart host Porto’s closest domestic challengers Benfica on Thursday evening, having poached a vital away goal through Martin Harnik’s delightful lobbed finish. The Portugese champions have endured a season to forget – the loss Angel di Maria in the summer and David Luiz in January (and with the vultures from Europe’s big leagues circling, how long can they hang on to the phenomenal Fabio Coentrao?) have seen their title chances erode and contributed to an early Champions League exit.
As evidenced in first leg, new acquisition Shinji Okazaki and Austrian hit-man Harnik carry a significant threat for the Bundesliga relegation battlers. But, given Stuttgart’s persistently woeful domestic form and shaky defence (which has leaked badly since the summer retirement of totemic custodian Jens Lehmann) and the Eagles’ abundance of predominantly South American attacking talent, we should expect Benfica to progress. Though there is some residual hope for die Schwaben: they have an excellent home record in Europe this season and Benfica have yet to register a win in Germany in 18 previous attempts. The winners are likely to meet resurgent PSG in last 16.
Napoli thumped Villarreal‘s near neighbours Valencia in their last visit to the Castellon region during their 1992/93 UEFA Cup campaign; Uruguayan striker Daniel Fonseca bagging all five of Napoli’s goals in a 5-1 win. It’s a little much to expect Fonseca’s countryman Edinson Cavani to emulate such an achievement on Wednesday, but the free-scoring Capocannoniere candidate will certainly provide a major scoring threat for the Partenopei, who have made the springtime stages in Europe for the first time since they won the 88/89 UEFA Cup. A tepid first leg display (a 0-0 bore draw) was the meat in Napoli’s Serie A sandwich – either side of that game, Walter Mazzari’s charges registered crucial wins; against Roma and a laboured defeat of Catania.
Villarreal will perhaps expect their visitors to be distracted by the growing possibility of an authentic scudetto challenge. The Yellow Submarine themselves are firmly ensconced in the fourth and final La Liga Champions League place, with an eight-point buffer over fifth-placed Athletic. Nilmar has recently returned from knee injury and teams up with Giuseppe Rossi (worth £30m-plus in Spurs’ estimation) in a mobile and dextrous front pairing. Villarreal are, therefore, slight favourites to progress, but they may need to score more than once to see off one of Europe’s most potent attacking forces. The winner’s prize will be a trip to the Rhine, to meet Michael Ballack’s Bayer Leverkusen in the next round.
Highly-regarded forward Ola Toivonen inspired a late fightback in the first leg of PSV’s tie with Lille; playing a part in Wilfred Bouma’s 83rd-minute tap-in before scoring the equaliser 60 seconds later. Such an unlikely turnaround gives Fred Rutten’s men the distinct advantage of starting the home leg with two away goals in the bank. Allied to the fact that Lille haven’t won during their last eight away games in Europe, the Dutch side must be fancied to progress. Nevertheless, more goals are likely to follow given Rudi Garcia’s commitment to attack and the considerable creative input of star-turns Gervinho and Eden Hazard. Lille suffered a Ligue 1 setback at the weekend – losing to Montpellier, but remain two points clear at the top; the same margin by which PSV lead the Eredivisie from FC Twente. The victors meet Sporting or Rangers next.
Two of the strongest group-stage performers, Young Boys and Zenit St Petersburg reconvene in Russia with the Swiss side holding a 2-1 lead from the first leg. Young Boys’ creative fulcrum is versatile Bosnian Senad Lulic – scorer of a delightful solo goal in the first leg and Emmanuel Mayuka’s stoppage-time strike gives the boys from Bern a fighting chance of progress. However, the newly-crowned Russian champions benefit from a lavish budget and a high-profile head coach in Luciano Spalletti (recently linked with Juventus.) Portugese star Danny orchestrates, while Danko Lazovic and Aleksandr Kerzhakov provide a razor-sharp cutting edge. Bruno Alves is the expensively-acquired rock at the back.
Zenit have won all five of their home fixtures in Europe this season and have gone ten continental games unbeaten at the Petrovsky Stadium since a 2-1 loss to Real Madrid in the 2008/09 season. Conversely, Young Boys have lost their last four European away games without scoring a single goal. So, despite their deficit, Zenit should still be fancied to meet Dutch champions Twente at the next stage.
Last 16 draw
Benfica/Stuttgart v BATE/PSG
Beşiktaş/Dynamo Kyiv v Aris/Manchester City
Rubin/Twente v Young Boys/Zenit
PAOK/CSKA Moskva v Sevilla/Porto
Lille/PSV v Rangers/Sporting
Metalist/Leverkusen v Napoli/Villarreal
Anderlecht/Ajax v Basel/Spartak Moskva
Sparta Praha/Liverpool v Lech/Braga