The opening act of the UEFA Europa League final 16 brought us ample drama and a veritable pan-continental panoply of goals. Ties in Madrid, Manchester, Liege and Valencia particularly produced a hatful of football’s most valued commodity – and left many tantalisingly unanswered questions hanging in the air ahead of Thursday evening’s conclusion.
Living upto – and far surpassing – all pre-match expectations was the barnstorming clash between an errant Manchester Utd and a transcendent Athletic Bilbao. At the increasingly pregnable Old Trafford, only David De Gea’s sustained excellence and a late, late penalty award kept United in the hunt for a quarter-final spot.
Athletic refused to be bowed by the concession of an early Wayne Rooney goal and routinely tore through their illustrious hosts via an array of attacking outlets in a sparkling 3-2 victory. Despite the apparent surprise at their prowess in the post-game press, the Basque standard-bearers had already managed as much earlier in the season: leading Barcelona until a 91st minute Lionel Messi equaliser rescued a 2-2 draw for the World Champions (Cesc Fabregas: “This was a great game against a great team”; Pep Guardiola: “They’re beasts”) and pinning down Real Madrid for 45 minutes at the Bernabeu. That game eventually drifted into a humbling 1-4 defeat, but there was to be no repeat in the Theatre of Dreams.
A paltry one-goal lead – albeit with three precious away goals banked – hardly did justice to Athletic’s efforts in the final reckoning. It was, of course, a triumph of the collective; as are all such successes are under the aegis of marvellous Marcelo Bielsa, who demands intensity as standard from each of his charges. Nonetheless, la selección trio of captain Andoni Iraola, totemic targetman Fernando Llorente and that skittish little imp, Iker Muniain shone the brightest. Martinez, De Marcos and Susaeta weren’t far behind.
At San Mames, known as La Catedral to the converted, it may be difficult to imagine a piqued United again performing so abjectly, yet it’s harder still to see how the English champions can fully suppress such a multitude of talents in peak form. There’ll almost certainly be a shift to a 3-man central midfield in an effort to wrest greater control of that area, despite the necessity to score at least twice. They will also prioritise attacking the space often vacated by Athletic’s flying fullbacks. Most crucially, any residual complacency and sloppiness from the first leg must be entirely eradicated.
United are tried and tested (many hundred times over) in the field of retrieving hopeless situations, and the years upon years of European experience accrued by old masters such as Giggs, Scholes and Ferdinand could yet trump the youthful expressiveness of Bielsa’s boys; much like when the Athletic manager’s exciting Chile side were clinically dispatched from the World Cup by Brazil’s greater guile. United’s away form is not too shabby, and if the talented Antonio Valencia and Tom Cleverley are unleashed too, we have all the makings of back-to-back classics.
The atmosphere generated in Enschede was, by all accounts, as electric as the on-pitch action was in Manchester. “Two clubs, two colours, one passion” read one giant banner, in Twente red and Schalke blue; indicative of the mutual respect between the clubs’ respective fans. Twente’s Willem Janssen noted the “strong bond” between the two clubs and the home fans even applauded Schalke’s players off the pitch, following the home side’s scrappy 1-0 win.
That admirable accord will, however, be put to the test during the second leg in Gelsenkirchen. Twente’s lead is a narrow one and, though Schalke failed to snatch an away goal, the tie remains finely-balanced in light of news from the treatment table. Prolific forward Klaas-Jan Huntelaar, already Schalke’s all-time top European goalscorer with 13 in 17 games, returns after a clout received on international duty from Chris Smalling – whose wound from their clash re-opened at Old Trafford; causing him to ‘retire hurt’ and, incidentally, jeopardises his participation in Bilbao.
Defensive bulwark Christoph Metzelder and fast-developing Beni Howedes also missed the first leg injured and are doubtful for the home tie. Young defensive midfielder Joel Matip was harshly sent off for a penalty box trip on Luuk de Jong, which the striker duly converted from the spot. He’ll be available for Schalke’s Dutch manager Huub Stevens to select though, owing to an appeal lodged with UEFA by the club.
A perpetual state of managerial flux and the destabilising loss of Manuel Neuer have been partially offset, for Schalke, by their platinum-plated strikeforce and a smattering of young German talent such as Howedes and the 18-year-old starlet Julian Draxler. They may be reliant once more on Huntelaar and his ageless cohort Raul to conjure some magic as the fourth-placed Bundesliga side have managed only one clean sheet in their last twelve outings.
This will surely hearten Steve McClaren, returning to Germany for the first time since his misjudged move to Wolfsburg quickly petered out. The former UEFA Cup finalist has slipped back into the Twente hotseat seamlessly since his reappointment; recent results include a 6-2 thumping of fellow last 16ers PSV and the Enschede club still harbour hopes of a trophy or two this year.
“We’ve grown over the last few years and we’re now a top team in the Eredivisie, and a side to be respected in Europe” McClaren correctly asserted in the build-up to the short trip across the border. His team play a compact, organised style and rely upon quicksilver strikers Ola John and Nacer Chadli to support ‘Llorente-lite’; Dutch international, de Jong. At the back, towering centre-half Douglas, who pulled off a phenomenal sliding tackle on Raul as the great conquistador bore down on the Twente goal last week, is in high demand – with Newcastle United a rumoured destination.
Twente have had the most attempts on target in this year’s competition: 57 in all. Allied to Schalke’s sieve-like defence, a further handful of shots and an away goal or two should tip the balance der Tukkers’ favour.
Having been on the receiving end of Twente’s recent penalty-box prolificacy, PSV’s defensive malaise continued apace in Andalusia last Thursday. The Dutch giants’ ineptitude was demonstrated most clearly by the shocking sight of Valencia’s tiny Pablo Piatti heading, unchallenged by any defender, against Andreas Isaksson’s post during a first half onslaught.
Their eventual 2-4 defeat (having been 0-4 down in the dying embers of the game) at Mestalla was followed in sharp order by a weekend reverse at NAC Breda. Resultantly, Fred Rutten (formerly boss of both Twente and Schalke) was shown the door and club stalwart Philip Cocu took the reins on an interim basis. Though he can boast a century of international caps and countless club honours, Cocu faces one of his toughest challenges in football yet, when La Liga’s best-of-the-rest arrive in town with a two-goal head-start.
Ever-improving Roberto Soldado netted a penalty in the first leg and recently snaffled a hat-trick for Spain in Fernando Torres’ absence – but is suspended for the Eindhoven tie. That will offer PSV a sliver of hope, as will the availability of attacking trident Dries Mertens, Ola Toivonen and Kevin Strootman, who can cause problems for any defence. They were 11 continental games undefeated before last week and that intangible boost so often derived from a managerial change can only bolster their slim hopes of an unlikely revival.
In the remaining ties, Manchester City are fancied to progress to the final eight, even though Roberto Mancini’s ailing super-side trail Sporting by a single first-leg goal and have seemingly run out of steam in the attacking third of late. The unregistered Carlos Tevez must wait in the wings. Atletico Madrid, renaissant under returning hero Diego Simeone, and Eredivisie-leaders AZ will expect to successfully defend two-goal leads over Besiktas and stumbling Udinese respectively.
Olympiacos managed to mute the many Latin talents of Ukraine’s Metalist and grab themselves a precious away goal, but will expect to meet some fierce resistance in Piraeus. Standard-Hannover always promised to be an tight match-up, and a 2-2 draw in Liege sets up a tantalising return in Germany; with ex-United striker Mame Biram Diouf among the potential match-winners on show. The draw for the final stages of the world’s most labyrinthine competition takes place on Friday afternoon and will undoubtedly produce a plethora of intriguing ties once more.