Journey to the Centre of the Europa League: Last 16

With hyper-extended league campaigns now completed – and the SPL just beginning – football’s curious calendar continues inexorably into a fourteenth and final month. Completing this unique cycle will be the climax to continental competition; the Champions and Europa League knockouts.

The first category of eight last-16 Europa League ties is the ‘stone-cold-certainty’ classification.

Manchester United will feel comfortable in resting some, if not all, of their irresistible attacking trident, as they welcome LASK Linz with a 5-0 lead (which they have held for the best part of five months).

The Austrian club went into lockdown vying with RB Salzburg for the title, only to be docked points for a prohibited full-squad practice during May. After a subsequent slump in form, head coach Valérien Ismaël was dismissed. Now a visit to Old Trafford. A tougher set of circumstances for new boss Dominik Thalhammer’s first competitive match in charge are hard to imagine.

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Meanwhile, Basel face last year’s semi-finalists Eintracht Frankfurt holding a slightly less impermeable three-goal lead. Though Frankfurt finished with a flourish to their Bundesliga campaign back in June, the Swiss league only finished on Monday – later than any other country in Europe. Will respite or momentum offer the greatest advantage?

In fact, Basel’s situation is symptomatic of the current reality in top-flight football. Their players also face a Swiss Cup semi-final in August and national team games in early September, then a new league season begins on September 11. Qualifying for the 2020/21 Europa League starts on the 17th.

The other games with a second leg still to complete also feature, like Frankfurt, well-rested Bundesliga teams, Bayer Leverkusen and Wolfsburg.

Facing compatriots Frankfurt, or more likely Basel, in the last eight will be the winner of Wolfsburg v Shakhtar Donetsk. One-time Newcastle full-back Kevin Mbabu will be missing from the Wolves’ squad – which has drawn attention for its growing number of American-born prospects – due to a positive Covid-19 test last week.

Shakhtar’s greater European know-how, allied to two away goals in the bank, might well see the Ukrainian champions, whose legendary ex-coach Mircea Lucescu was recently hounded out of arch-rivals Dynamo Kyiv’s dugout within days, through to the next stage.

Leverkusen’s opponents, Rangers, could hardly have had a more contrasting preparation, as they have played just a handful of friendlies and one league game against Aberdeen since the SPL was terminated in spring.

Though Peter Bosz’s young side, who can be scintillating on their day, have the advantage of a deserved two-goal lead and can welcome striker Kevin Volland back from injury, they will be without skilful midfielder Nadiem Amiri. The former Hoffenheim star has been quarantined, having declared contact with someone who has contracted COVID-19 and will subsequently miss out.

Amiri has been separated from the squad for a week, so should Leverkusen reach the quarters (where they would face Inter or Getafe next Monday) they will again be without the 23-year-old. Despite his apparent indiscretion, die Werkself’s director of football Rudi Völler praised him for coming forward.

“This shows that our hygiene measures are working and that the players are sensitive to the corona issue,” Völler said in a statement.

“Nadiem’s behaviour is exemplary and important. Particularly in view of the current increase in the number of infections in Germany, this is an example of a serious and responsible approach to the pandemic.”

The ex-Roma striker makes a salient point, as tournament host Germany’s daily number of new infections has breached 900 of late: levels not seen since May. Strenuous safety regulations and regular testing will be implemented throughout the competition, but justified concerns persist.

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Turkish champions after several years of being the bridesmaid, İstanbul Başakşehir take their age-defying team to Copenhagen with a one-goal lead. Veterans such as Gökhan Inler (36), Martin Škrtel (35), Demba Ba (35), plus relative spring chicks Gaël Clichy (34), Mehmet Topal (34) and Eljero Elia (33) – supplemented by cameos from 36-year-old Robinho (yes, that Robinho) – have spearheaded the unheralded club to domestic supremacy, ahead of the established Istanbul giants.

Incidentally, it appears Turkey is a true playground for the young at heart (but old of body): Lukas Podolski (35), Papiss Cissé (35), Ricardo Quaresma (36), Arouna Koné (36), Stéphane Sessègnon (36), Atiba Hutchinson (37) and 39-year-old Emre Belözoğlu (just retired) are the pick of influential seniors dotted around other clubs in the Süper Lig.

Wolverhampton Wanderers boss Nuno has a much more dynamic squad at his disposal and if they weren’t so expertly focussed on taking one game at a time, they’d have at least half an eye on a potential semi-final with Manchester United. There is, of course, much work to do before then.

Even at a time of great anxiety, in March, the first leg of Wolves’ tie with Olympiacos was particularly overshadowed by their reluctance to travel amid such uncertainty. Quite rightly, Nuno called in to question the safety and validity of playing out that 1-1 draw. Now, though, as coronavirus concern continues to resurface in the UK, the Greek champions visit the Black Country. A full-strength Wolves squad – with all its experience and guile – must be fancied to seal passage to the next round.

It has emerged that both Wolves and United may be allowed extra time to recover post-season, dependent on their progress; starting next season at least 30 days after they finish their 19/20 campaign. The Premier League will reach a final decision on the matter later this week, as fatigue will inevitably shadow players throughout 2020/21, which is set to be even more congested than usual.

Concluding the last-16 ties, there are a pair of single-leg games, to be held in the hastily appointed tournament host country, Germany. This compromise was agreed as a necessity, given the first legs had to be abandoned in mid-March, due to the dramatic escalation of the pandemic across Western Europe at the time.

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Ahead of Inter’s tie in Gelsenkirchen, with Getafe, manager Antonio Conte characteristically attacked the club hierarchy: “This has been a very intense year for me, especially on a personal level,” Conte told Sky Sport Italia.

“Neither my work, nor that of the players has been recognised, I found scarce protection from the club…To reduce the gap with Juventus, you need to be strong on the pitch but above all off it…if you are weak, it’s hard to protect the team and the manager.”

All this from a man who had just secured Inter’s first top-two finish in nearly a decade by impressively dismissing an off-colour Atalanta side at the weekend, and has brought high-earning stars like Romelu Lukaku, Alexis Sanchez and Diego Godin to the club. Conte, like his mega-morose counterpart at Spurs, is simply never satisfied. Perhaps this is why he enjoys such success but must make him insufferable to work with on a daily basis.

Getafe finished the Liga season with a solitary goal in their final six games, seeing them slump to eighth after contending for an unlikely Champions League berth for much of the year. José Bordalás’ side must now rely on memories of their brilliant dispatch of Ajax in the last-32 to spur hopes of an epic shock against an intimidatingly staffed Serie A powerhouse.

Last – but certainly not least – an eye-catching clash between Sevilla and Roma will also be a one-off affair, this time in Duisburg.

Roma finished a sometimes troubled domestic season strongly; sealing seven wins in eight – while blooding some youngsters – against a distracted Juventus side on the final day. Their most prized young asset, Nicolò Zaniolo, has returned from serious injury with dyed-blonde hair and an undimmed ability to surge effortlessly past established defenders, as he did in sublimely teeing up the giallorossi’s final goal.

Again, the cold hand of the virus has disrupted Sevilla’s build-up, with Nemanja Gudelj testing positive leading to a three-day suspension of training. Julen Lopetegui will, nevertheless be confident of his side’s chances, as their post-lockdown record reads: W6, D5, L0. Winners in 2005/06, 06/07, 13/14, 14/15 and 15/16), Sevilla’s Europa League pedigree is literally second to none.

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