One of the Europa League’s major strengths is its curiosity factor. While the Champions League’s latter stages generally pit an unchanging elite against each other in perpetuity (with some honourable exceptions this year in Shakhtar, Spurs and Schalke), the EL’s ingrained plurality can throw up ties between west and east; north and south; little and large; summer and winter.
To clarify, that’s clubs competing in various summer and winter leagues across the continent. This clash of schedules is a recurring factor in the knockout stages of European competition, to such an extent that the Russian league has just embarked on a transitional season which will, next year, finally align the fastest-developing league under the UEFA umbrella with the summer-spring calendar of its Western rivals.
Nevertheless, for this season at least, the chasm in match-practice remains between combatants from either side of the divide. This was evidenced most explicitly in Enschede last week, when Dutch champions Twente turned over their Russian counterparts Zenit St Petersburg. Their 3-0 win was secured thanks largely to a well-taken brace of Luuk de Jong headers, though Zenit missed out on snaffling an away goal or two thanks to their strikers’ painfully apparent lack of sharpness. Having comfortably beaten the side Zenit deposed as domestic champions, Rubin Kazan, on their previous trip to Russia last month, Twente will clearly be confident of progressing despite Zenit’s long unbeaten home record in Europe.
Ajax, currently trailing Twente in the Eredivisie, are another Dutch side to face opposition from across the Baltic Sea. In using midfielder Siem de Jong (Luuk’s older brother) as an auxiliary centre-forward against Spartak Moscow, head coach Frank de Boer tacitly admitted that in selling Luis Suarez mid-season and banishing leading scorer Mounir El Hamdaoui to the reserves (for a dressing-room ruck with the manager), the Amsterdammers were effectively cutting off their ear-lobe to spite their mate.
The first leg at the Ajax ArenA saw a youthful Ajax side dominate possession but lack the cutting edge to capitalise on any lingering Muscovite rustiness. Spartak, tightly-marshalled under the aegis of club legends Valeri Karpin and Andrey Tikhonov, defended deep; using the counter-attacking speed and ever-increasing tactical awareness of Aiden McGeady as a release valve. And a more progressive second half approach was rewarded with a vital away goal – skipper Alex’s sweet, swinging strike giving Spartak a slender advantage for the return tie.
Ukrainian ‘keeper Andriy Dykan pulled off a number of fine stops in Amsterdam and will most likely need to be on full alert again when faced with talents including the divinely-gifted Christian Eriksen, and Brazilian livewire Ebecilio. The lightning-quick winger’s playing style is somewhat reminiscent of Nani – albeit mostly the 08/09 ‘headless chicken’ version – and such unpredictability offers the primary hope of Ajax breaching a defence which conceded four against Rostov on Monday night. The Dutch side travel well too; remaining unbeaten in their six away trips since the birth of the Europa League. Spartak are naturally favourites, but this tie is still very much in the balance.
The same can be said of the delicately-poised match-up between Paris St Germain and Benfica. A combination of lax defending by Benfica’s all-Brazilian centre-half pairing, Luisao and his protégé Sidnei, and the ongoing virtuosity of PSG’s playmaker Nene led to Peguy Luyindula’s early opener in Lisbon last week, but Antoine Kombouare’s side will feel a degree of frustration that they failed to fully capitalise on a positive performance.
Super-sub Franco Jara, scorer of a crucial goal against Stuttgart in the last round, snatched a late first-leg winner for the Eagles. All of which means that the Ligue 1 title-chasers will necessarily be required to take the game to Benfica, who have excelled since their annual summer sales contributed to a shaky start to the season. Jara, Eduardo Salvio (on loan from last year’s champions Atletico Madrid) and Nico Gaitan are the Argentine starlets that revolve around Paraguayan target-man Oscar Cardozo; whose shooting uncharacteristically left a lot to be desired in the home leg.
PSG, however, should not be written off. They are a side transformed this season, with the ageless Claude Makelele as their metronomic centrepiece, and boast a formidable home record in continental competition: unbeaten in 14 European home games at Parc des Princes since November 2006. Throughout this spell they’ve kept 11 clean sheets in Paris, scoring 24 goals; conceding just five.
Benfica’s own incredible 18-game winning streak in all competitions was broken only by a recent league loss to Braga. Relative minnows, at this stage of the competition, last year’s Liga Sagres runners-up picked off an unimpressive Liverpool at the stadium they call ‘the Quarry’. So, thanks to Alan’s penalty, The Quarrymen will play Anfield with at least a fighting chance of progress. Marcio Mossoro is the pick of Braga’s burgeoning Brazilian contingent, but there are legitimate doubts about their resilience on the road, having been routed 6-0 by Arsenal on their last trip to England.
In the absence of Luis Suarez and confirmed Europa League-phobic Steven Gerrard, whether or not Andy Carroll plays a significant chunk of the game will be a decisive factor. Braga’s defence, Kaka in particular, struggled to cope with the young Geordie’s distinctive brand of ponytailed muscularity during his brief cameo in Portugal.
An hour or so down the coast from Braga’s spectacular cliff-side stadium, at Estadio do Dragao, Porto will host CSKA Moscow in a heavyweight (or at least cruiserweight) clash of recent UEFA Cup-winners. There’ll be an abundance of attacking talent on display – Falcao, Hulk, Honda, Dzagoev, Doumbia and Vagner Love share top billing – and the tie is perfectly poised, with army club CSKA needing to deploy their full weaponry due to a first-leg reverse.
Keisuke Honda, working predominantly from the right flank, was the hub of all their best attacking work at the Luzhniki and Leonid Slutsky’s charges were unfortunate to fall to a late sucker punch from Fredy Guarin, as did Sevilla in the previous round. The sluggish nature of Vagner Love’s close-range finishing highlighted CSKA’s deficit of big-game sharpness, but, of course the 2010 Russian Premier League runners-up can call upon lingering memories of six years ago, when they overcame such disadvantages to claim the trophy in Lisbon. Both teams have had more shots on goal since the start of the group stage than any other sides in the tournament; 69 for Porto, 67 for CSKA. Expect goals and entertainment in abundance, with the home side to march on towards the last eight.
Fellow Iberians Villarreal should join them there, given their dramatic 3-2 win by the Rhine last Thursday. The pick of last Thursday’s ties saw Bayer Leverkusen, still harbouring faint hopes of a first Bundesliga title, cede an early advantage to typically lethal finishes from Giuseppe Rossi and his able replacement Nilmar (2). The Brazilian international’s second, and potentially decisive, goal came at the death and was a lucid lesson in world-class ball-control and goal-poaching.
The Yellow Submarines could afford to field just one of their deadly duo at a time and also save the legs of key creator Santi Cazorla (used only as a late sub), yet came away from the BayArena with the spoils. The strength of their position is reinforced by the fact that Juan Carlos Garrido’s side have won all five of their EL home games so far, conceding just twice at El Madrigal in the process. Leverkusen, however, are unbeaten in their last six European away matches – four wins and two draws – and haven’t conceded in their last three trips abroad, so this contest is far from over. They’ll need to score at least twice to stay in the competition though, which is where der Werkself may come unstuck.
Despite a profusion of talent in the middle of the park – Renato Augusto (recently capped for Brazil in Paris), young German starlets Lars Bender and Sidney Sam, and spiky Chilean anchorman Arturo Vidal (suspended for this tie) – the level of Leverkusen’s strikers (Kieβling, Derdyiok, et al) pales in comparison with Villarreal’s. Injury-riddled Michael Ballack should return in place of Vidal and will need to conjure up a vintage performance if his side are to cause an almighty upset.
Other ties: resilient Rangers host PSV with dreams of overachieving their way to another final still very much intact, while Dynamo Kyiv travel to Eastlands; meeting Manchester City, who might for once please the neutrals by fielding their full attacking artillery, owing to their two-goal deficit.