Journey to the centre of the Europa League – last 32, first legs

VAR fans rejoice! The unstoppable ascent (descent?) of technological intervention in football continues apace, with the belated introduction of video assistant referees to the UEFA Europa League.

The VAR will be deployed in each game of the knockout phase, which kicks off on Thursday. This decision was taken by UEFA last September, following the introduction of the wildly popular system in several competitions last year. VAR analysis and training took place at UEFA’s winter course for top European referees in Mallorca last month, with the match officials also “given an update on VAR procedures”.

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UEFA’s Referees Committee chairman Roberto Rosetti, who once bestrode Serie A and beyond with great authority, proclaimed: “We’re very happy with the figures that we’ve seen in the Champions League – in 108 matches in total, 27 decisions have been corrected through the VAR system, (so) a decision has only been overturned every four matches – this shows the quality of the referees’ performances… The time taken is important. So far this season, the average has been 1 minute 30 seconds – 15 seconds less than last year.”

However, I would emphasise once more that VAR is only for clear and obvious mistakes, and not for controversial situations,” he added, without hint of controversy (or irony).

Football needs good referees above all – match officials with a strong personality on the field of play, who take correct and courageous decisions.

A worthy sermon, indeed, Signor Rosetti. Certainly, the marmite-flavoured system has been utilised more competently in continental competition than in the Premier League, where painful first-year teething troubles persist.

Wolves, in particular, feel as though they have been on the receiving end of a number of tight calls this term. Boss Nuno has been reluctant to lay blame at technology’s door, however, preferring to focus on his unshakeable process-driven mantra (an approach more traditionally known as: “We’re taking it one game at a time, Barry”) during post-match interviews.

His side’s impressive return to European competition has matched the ease with which they have integrated into the upper echelons of top-flight football. The welcome return of Willy Boly from a broken ankle has helped the Black Country side keep back-to-back clean sheets, while their counter-attacking threat (Adama Traoré, et al) is increasingly notorious.

Opponents Espanyol were winners of Group H but have had an otherwise awful season. Rooted in the Primera División relegation zone, the Barcelona-based club have twice changed manager, settling now on ex-Barça defender, Abelardo. Three ambitious signings for 40 million euros – headlined by Raúl de Tomás (or RDT, as he prefers) – have been parachuted in to arrest the decline. This was a fortune in Espanyol terms, but has started to take some effect. A crucial win over relegation rivals Mallorca brought them closer to safety, before a valuable draw with Sevilla at the weekend. RDT – with five goals in as many La Liga games already – unfortunately misses out through injury, so a compact, defensive side will hope to grind out a draw at an atmospheric Molineux.

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Beating Wolves to top spot in the group stage was a rare highlight in an inconsistent opening half-season for SC Braga. Events took a sharp turn for the better, however, when the club with a stadium hewn from sheer rockface promoted their 35-year-old B-team coach, Ruben Amorim to the dugout. A former Benfica midfielder, his first game in charge resulted in a 7-1 thumping of Belenenses, which was soon followed with an improbable defeat of Porto in the League Cup final.

It has, in fact, been a fruitful phase in the club’s modest history, with Braga’s beach soccer team recently crowned World Club Champions. With such feel-good factor serving to build momentum, they remain unbeaten under their new coach. And, to cap it all, the side which has become renowned as a production line of local and Brazilian talent for bigger fish around the Iberian Peninsula, deservedly conquered table-topping Benfica at Estádio da Luz last weekend.

Paulinho (with four goals in the last three Europa League matchdays; two against Beşiktaş and once versus Wolves and Slovan Bratislava) expertly led the line. While, from the bench in this landmark win, emerged the twinkle-toed Francisco Trincão – recently sold for 31m euros (£26m) to Barcelona.

The nimble 20-year-old forward will join the Catalan giants in July, with his contract containing a 500m euro buy-out clause – presumably not only as a reflection of his burgeoning talent but also due to the modern penchant for such pointlessly absurd release fees.

Last-32 opponents Rangers, by contrast, have been seriously underwhelming since returning from the SPL winter break. One of several issues facing manager Steven Gerrard is the Ibrox pitch. The effects of several storms have rendered the playing surface something of a wreck, so a direct, aggressive style will likely be employed. Amorim has already acknowledged the need for caution in this regard and is undoubtedly wary of a side that saw off Porto in the group phase.

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However, Rangers’ star man Alfredo Morelos has been curiously quiet of late, not only in terms of goals but in relation to trademark controversial incidents too. Taking once more to his favourite stage – the Colombian was the top scorer in Europa League qualifying this season with eight goals and added a group stage-leading six – Morelos nevertheless will be fancied to make a grand impact on proceedings in one way or another. Incidentally, his total of 14 is the most ever scored by a player in UEFA football club competition before Christmas and is already enough to leave him just four off the season record set by compatriot Radamel Falcao in helping Porto win the 2010/11 Europa League.

Most goals in a single UEFA men’s club competition season (including qualifying)

18 Radamel Falcao (Porto, 2010/11 UEFA Europa League)
17 Cristiano Ronaldo (Real Madrid, 2013/14 UEFA Champions League)
16 Cristiano Ronaldo (Real Madrid, 2015/16 UEFA Champions League)
15 Jürgen Klinsmann (Bayern München, 1995/96 UEFA Cup)
15 Cristiano Ronaldo (Real Madrid, 2017/18 UEFA Champions League)
14 José Altafini (AC Milan, 1962/63 European Champion Clubs’ Cup)
14 Lothar Emmerich (Borussia Dortmund, 1965/66 European Cup Winners’ Cup)
14 Klaas Jan Huntelaar (Schalke, 2011/12 UEFA Europa League)
14 Lionel Messi (Barcelona, 2011/12 UEFA Champions League)
14 Alfredo Morelos (Rangers, 2019/20 UEFA Europa League)
14 Ruud van Nistelrooy (Manchester United, 2002/03 UEFA Champions League)
14 John Wark (Ipswich Town, 1980/81 UEFA Cup)

Just behind the Rangers hitman in terms of group stage goals was Manchester United’s expensive new signing, Bruno Fernandes (then of Sporting), with five goals. The Portugal playmaker struck twice against PSV on Matchday Five and also supplied three assists to further inflate the figures in a stunning statistical portfolio while at Estádio José Alvalade.

Expected to orchestrate United’s latest attempt at rising from the mire of mediocrity, Fernandes is eligible to represent his new club as a result of a change to UEFA rules – players can now represent more than one club per season in Europe. Nonetheless, it has predominantly been Ole Gunnar Solskjær’s crop of talented youngsters (including Mason Greenwood, with four group stage goals) that has ensured progress so far.

In addition to Greenwood, the timely emergence of Brandon Williams as a first-teamer has also been among the highlights of their run to date. Forgotten man Eric Bailly has impressed upon his return to action and may be among those given a start at Club Brugge. The Blau-Zwart may be top of the First Division by nine points and even snatched an unlikely 2-2 draw at Real Madrid in their Champions League group earlier this season, but will most probably adopt a more defensive line-up, with a lone frontman – possibly Nigerian forward Bonaventure Dennis or Czech striker Michael Krmenčík. Dennis scored both goals at the Bernabeu and celebrated in colourful style.

Continuing the theme of goalscorers, many eyes – and euros worth of bets – will be on the likes of Sevilla’s La Masia graduate, Munir (five goals and two assists in his first 368 minutes of group stage action); Myron Boadu of AZ (like Greenwood aged just 18, the Netherlands U-21 international already had four goals and two assists by Matchday Five); and the well-travelled journeyman Claudiu Keşerü (four goals so far for Bulgaria’s Ludogorets).

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A long-time servant of modest Ligue 1 clubs, the Romanian striker took to social media to proclaim his excitement at matching up against Serie A heavyweights, Internazionale – and Romelu Lukaku in particular – when the draw was made.  It will be a formidable task, however.

Under Antonio Conte, Champions League dropouts Inter must be considered favourites to triumph in the Gdansk final in May – providing a strong side is fielded. Winter window signings included the experienced trio of Christian Eriksen, Ashley Young and Victor Moses. Young’s first goal for the club came in the weekend defeat to fellow scudetto contenders, Lazio.

Simone Inzaghi’s exciting side suffered a tame group stage exit, largely due to a lack of commitment (capocannonieri leader Ciro Immobile was often rested) yet thrive domestically. Will Inter follow suit in order to throw everything in to finally toppling Juventus from their towering perch? Or will they – as vice-president and club legend Javier Zanetti suggests – respect their continental reputation by targeting Europa League success as something of a consolation prize?

Similarly, what will be the intent of La Liga’s Champions League-chasing Getafe and their opponents Ajax – before the vultures once again descend in the summer for stars such as André Onana, Donny van der Beek and Hakim Ziyech (already Stamford Bridge-bound)? Whatever, it promises to be an intriguing match-up and a captivating chance to see late-flourishing forwards Jaime Mata, Jorge Molina and Ángel Rodríguez mixing it with the graduates from Europe’s most eminent academy, De Toekomst.

This, alongside several others we didn’t have time to mention, is the kind of fixture which makes the Europa League, for all its flaws, a journey to treasure.

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