Following a cull of big name clubs such as Liverpool, PSG, Man City and Ajax in the last 16, the Europa League quarter-final line-up took on a curious alignment. There were three distinct geographical groups left in the reckoning: the Dutch (PSV and Twente); the Iberians (Villarreal, Benfica , Braga and Porto); and the ex-Soviets (Spartak Moscow and Dynamo Kyiv).
As the only remaining contender from Europe’s ‘big leagues’, Villarreal are rightly considered favourites, particularly as the Yellow Submarine seem to be treating their pursuit of a first-ever major European trophy with the requisite seriousness. Of course, they were only among the gaggle of clubs on an overcrowded starting line back in August due to UEFA’s decision to expel Mallorca for their outlandish fiscal recklessness. Such twists of fate can so often lead to outrageous fortune for the beneficiary; just ask Denmark’s class of ‘92.
With six wins from six previous European ties at El Madrigal this season, the visit of Dutch champions Twentelast week held few fears for Juan Carlos Garrido’s men. The Tukkers’ trip to Castellon offered the most aesthetic potential of all the quarters, however, with both sides committed to long-founded attacking principles. Domestically, both clubs are cast in the romantic role of small-town challengers to the oligarchic domestic elite. While Villarreal have the improbable task of challenging Barca and Real in La Liga, Twente, from the relatively unfashionable city of Enschede, are the classic provincial upstarts mixing it up with the established big-guns from Eindhoven and Amsterdam. At home, they’re back on course for consecutive title triumphs following a comprehensive 2-0 win over closest league rivals PSV two weeks ago.
Michel Preud’homme, one of that peculiarly rare breed – the goalkeeper-turned-manager – has done a more than creditable job of maintaining the extraordinary ascent kick-started by Fred Rutten and further facilitated by Steve McLaren’s splendidly successful spell in the dugout. A typically progressive line-up was clearly detailed to press high on their illustrious opponents and, to paraphrase Jack Wilshere, ‘get in their faces’. This ploy worked briefly, with Villarreal’s ‘keeper Diego Lopez getting entangled on several occasions because he was entirely averse to hoofing aimless balls up-field and couldn’t safely roll the ball out to his defenders to initiate an attack.
Villarreal snatched the lead against the run of play, however, through a Carlos Marchena header. When Twente’s attacking focal point, Luuk de Jong, then limped off on the half-hour mark, their grip on proceedings further slackened. Ever effervescent, Santi Cazorla set up his fellow diminutive orchestrator Borja Valero for a second, before razor-sharp Nilmar nodded into an empty net on the stroke of half-time, as Twente’s bulky back-line of Onyewu, Douglas and Wisgerhof were all at sea. To finally kill the game, the other half of Villarreal’s Champions League-standard forward pairing, Giuseppe Rossi, calmly curled in his 9th goal of their continental campaign before a late goal for either side made it 5-1.
So, seven-out-of-seven for the hosts, but, since then, Villarreal have suffered a 0-5 thrashing in the Valencian derby and had their captain, Gonzalo, ruled out for the rest of the season. No side in UEFA competition has fought back from a first-leg four goal deficit since Real Madrid eroded Borussia Mönchengladbach’s 5-1 first-leg advantage in the 1987/88 UEFA Cup though. Don’t put your under-the-mattress-fund on a repeat in Enschede.
Awaiting El Submarino Amarillo in the final four will most probably be a rampant Porto side – already crowned Portugese champions with a handful of games to spare. Again proving himself a supreme poacher, Falcao broke through the fug of a slumberous first half – forgivable, given their championship celebrations – by heading in the opener late in the first half of their home tie against Spartak Moscow. The free-scoring Colombian (27 goals/30 games) then used his chest to tee up Varela’s unerring volley for the second, before Spartak keeper Andriy Dykan, so impressive in the previous round against Ajax, gifted Maicon the third. Falcao then helped himself to two more, bringing his EL tally to ten – one ahead of Rossi in the top-scorer charts, which adds another frisson to a mouth-watering potential semi-final between the best two sides left in the hunt.
Porto, having effectively knocked out their second successive Moscow club, had turned over perennial rivals Benfica to seal the Liga Sagres title at Andre Villas-Boas’ first attempt. Though the Eagles were so ruthlessly dethroned as national champions, their disappointment was barely tangible as they put a toothless PSV side to the sword in Lisbon last Thursday, when raiding full-backs Maxi Pereira and Fabio Coentrao were among the primary protagonists. Goals from Pablo Aimar, a brace from on-loan starlet Eduardo Salvio and a crucial, late penalty-box turn-and-finish from El Conejo; Javier Saviola, give Benfica a healthy 4-1 lead to take to Eindhoven and contributed heavily to the best goals-per-game ratio of any Europa League round this season, with the four matches producing an average of 4.75 goals.
The all-Argentine score-sheet at Estadio da Luz reflects not only Benfica’s reliance on Latin stars, but also the prominence of South and Central American goal-getters among the remaining contenders. Nilmar, Hulk and Welliton all represent Brazil; Falcao and Fredy Guarin – Colombia; and Twente’s out-of-form star Bryan Ruiz is a Costa Rican international. It would be apposite to name some of those, too, who comprise the South American influence on the third Portugese club left in, Braga, but it’d take all day to fully profile the extent of the Brazilian contingent in their Samba-infused squad.
Os Arsenalistas, as they’re cutely monikered, have left a trail of big names in their wake since embarking on their first ever Champions League campaign by dumping out Celtic late last summer. Braga’s last-eight opponents, Dynamo Kyiv, have been comprehensively uprooted from their previous position of domestic supremacy by Shakhtar (who accounted for Braga in both CL group stage ties between the two), yet would still constitute another major scalp for the provincial minnows from northern Portugal.
“(Reaching) the quarter-finals is already a great achievement for us, but after beating the likes of Celtic, Sevilla and Liverpool we don’t want to stop here,” Braga’s highly-rated coach Domingos Paciencia declared after a positive first leg performance.
The sides traded a goal apiece within the first fifteen minutes in the Ukrainian capital, and the tie ended 1-1. By far the most stellar name on the field inexcusably absented himself just after the hour: Andriy Shevchenko getting his marching ordersfor a second bookable offence for playing on after the offside flag had been raised; did he not see Robin van Persie’s stringently-judged aberration at Camp Nou last month? It was a decision which provoked one particularly deranged Dynamo fan to take his frustration out on the ref, Bjorn Kuipers, by aiming a kick at him as he left the field.
Sheva’s subsequent suspension leaves skilful striker Artem Milevskiy, who recently returned to action after breaking his hand, as the chief Dynamo goal-threat for the return leg. They’ll start as slight underdogs, due to Braga’s away-goal-in-hand and previous giant-killing feats, and the fact that they also have a woeful track record in Portugal (P5 W1 L4, with an aggregate score of 3-13). Somewhat surprisingly, given the circumstances, Braga claim that they’ll refrain from parking the bus on home territory:
“We’re not going to play for a draw or get preoccupied with not conceding,” said Domingos. “Our goal is to win, and it’s essential we score.”
That should make for an engaging 90 minutes (or more) in The Quarry, one of Europe’s most architecturally alluring stadia. The winners will most likely take on Benfica in the semi-finals (on April 28th and May 5th), playing the first leg at home. Should Braga meet the Eagles in the semis, it would be the first time that two Portuguese sides have gone head-to-head in a UEFA club tie. Either way, it looks as though the Iberian contingent will dominate the final four as the long and winding road to Dublin shortens further still.