When the Europa League finally resumed last week, it did so with more of a damp fizzle than an electrifying bang. Though appetites were whetted for close-fought, epic encounters on the European stage, the last-16 deciders were, in the main, a case of controlled passage to the quarter-finals by deserving victors.
As something of a mishmash necessitated by the disruptive intrusion of a mid-season pandemic – teams came into the ties having finished their respective league seasons at vastly different times, while some were required to play-off at a neutral venue – there was a feeling of finishing off an overdue chore.
Now though, with the final handful decided and everyone convened in Germany, it feels as though this year’s distinctive denouement is truly set to take off.
Many pundits’ favourites, Inter came through a low-key affair with Getafe, in which – despite dictating most of the play – they nearly let progress slip through their grasp. Only 38-year-old skipper Jorge Molina’s comi-tragic penalty miss allowed sub Christian Eriksen (and that’s what the ex-Spurs and Ajax man chiefly is under Antonio Conte: a substitute) to seal the deal late on.
That penalty was the result of a rare error from Diego Godín, but Inter’s defence, including imposing ‘keeper Samir Handanović, is still a strong suit for the nerazzurri, having not conceded in any of their last five games.
This makes the forthcoming challenge of Bayer Leverkusen’s bright, speedy attack a mouth-watering clash of styles.
Leverkusen’s final fixture of the Bundesliga season came on June 27, whereas Inter came into the Getafe game having a matter of days to prepare, after defeating close rivals Atalanta to seal runners-up spot in Serie A. Nonetheless, Peter Bosz’s team were quickly up to speed in the searing summer heat of North Rhine-Westphalia, as they finished off Rangers – well short of meaningful matches themselves.
Prodigious teenager Florian Wirtz and his relatively elderly 21-year-old companion Kai Havertz (you may have heard some transfer rumblings about him recently) were to the forefront again. Livewire winger Moussa Diaby, who has drawn comparisons with comeback king Arjen Robben, scored a scintillating goal and will surely test the resolve of the wily Inter back three on Monday evening.
Although Nadiem Amiri is still quarantined and influential Chilean schemer Charles Aranguiz is suspended, Leverkusen will look to go on the front foot against their formidable opponents. Bosz declared:
Our playing philosophy is that we want to play attacking football…attractive football, to score a lot of goals. That’s our vision.
He continued, relying on an stereotype which ignores that Serie A saw more goals this season than any of the other ‘Big five’ leagues:
In general, Italian teams defend really well. Inter are a different team: they try to press high and build up from the back. They’re not playing long balls. It gives us a certain opportunity.
Julen Lopetegui’s Sevilla are not averse to building up from the back themselves. With Diego Carlos and Jules Koundé rightly receiving rave reviews for their work at the heart of the Andalusian club’s defence, there is much to admire about the foundations laid during the ex-Spain and Real Madrid manager’s first season.
A summary dismissal of Roma, in what was expected to be a close-run game but instead turned out to be largely one-way traffic, should fill los rojiblancos with further confidence ahead of another appealing tie, with Wolverhampton Wanderers, in Duisburg.
Thanks to their top-class medical department – and, it must be said, a great deal of fortune – Wolves have managed to survive a year-long campaign at home and abroad with a small squad and minimal rotation. However, reliable wingback Jonny Castro Otto will be missing for the foreseeable future, after sustaining an anterior cruciate ligament injury against Olympiacos.
Due to a breach of FFP regulations, it was also confirmed last week that if Wolves were to win the Europa League and subsequently qualify for next term’s Champions League, they will only be allowed 23 players in their squad instead of 25. This theoretically wouldn’t pose much of a problem for Nuno (like his counterpart, Lopetegui, briefly an unsuccessful boss of Porto), who clearly likes to operate a lean first-team operation in any case. Nevertheless, Wolves fans will be hoping that the old adage of bad news coming in threes does not hold true on Tuesday.
Goalkeeper Rui Patricio, frequently involved as his side squeezed past Olympiacos, has stated that Sevilla will provide their greatest test yet. If the ingenuity of Youssef El Arabi and Omar Elabdellaoui caused them problems last week, then the extraordinary energy and directness of Lucas Ocampos and Sergio Reguilón, not to mention the guile of veteran winger Jesús Navas, will undoubtedly keep Wolves’ much-vaunted defence on its toes throughout. Unless their brilliant ‘keeper can pull off further heroics, Wolves’ first European road-trip for 39 years may finally see it’s end after a year-long adventure.
Carrying their end-of-term La Liga form into continental competition, Sevilla have now scored 123 goals in the Europa League, needing two more to take the competition record held jointly by Villarreal and RB Salzburg. They have also registered a record-equalling 39 wins, the same number as the Austrian champions. It would take a brave man, woman or child to bet against both of those records falling this week.
Meeting either side in the semi-final will be FC Copenhagen or Manchester United, who convene in Cologne. For the Danish Superliga runners-up, progress this far represents their first ever foray into the last eight of a major European competition.
FCK were founded in a 1992 merger between two historic capital city clubs and have been a regular on the fringes of the European scene since, but the clash with United will be arguably the most illustrious fixture in their history.
Given the meteoric rise of Ole Gunnar Solskjær’s youthful side since lockdown, Ståle Solkbakken (once – briefly – boss of potential semi-final opponents Wolves) has his work cut out. Incidentally, the former Norway international team-mates completed their coaching badges together.
Last week’s comprehensive defeat of Turkish champions İstanbul Başakşehir’s ageing side was driven by Jonas Wind and skilful winger Rasmus Falk. However, the recent departure of veteran frontman Dame N’Doye, who notched 118 goals in 218 appearances for the club, leaves a question mark over the number nine position.
Despite a serious injury which limited his game time this year, N’Doye was offered a new deal (believed to be on reduced terms) but decided to leave before Copenhagen’s Europa journey ended. This has left Solbakken facing a selection dilemma.
“Now that we won’t have (him), we have a situation where the likes of Jonas Wind, Michael Santos and Mikkel Kaufmann can play as pure strikers, while Mohamed Daramy and Viktor Fischer can also play in forward positions,” explained Solbakken, who claimed that N’Doye had been “without a doubt the best striker in the history of the club and the Superliga.”
We must now analyse how that formation can work, and whether we need to adjust further there.
In addition, FCK have been struggling to fill their bench of late. Nicolaj Thomsen, Ragnar Sigurdsson and Fischer have been out injured, while Santos is suspended. The United-shaped mountain ahead of them is a formidable one indeed.
Finally, certainly the least glamourous of the ties on paper. Though both clubs have past Champions League pedigree in abundance, Shakhtar Donetsk and Basel are little fancied to go all the way this year. Facing Leverkusen or Inter in the semi is the salubrious prize for the winners in Gelsenkirchen.
Ukrainian champions once again, Shakhtar’s destruction of outclassed Wolfsburg last week was notable, as Marlos and Junior Moraes’ input emphasised their superior technical qualities. Head coach Luís Castro presides over an experienced, well-oiled frontline but their defensive achilles heel will be all the more exposed in the quarter-final due to the suspension of Georgian mainstay Davit Khocholava.
Former Austria manager Marcel Koller has held the reins at Basel since 2018 and has defensive selection issues of his own, as goalkeeper Jonas Omlin looks set to jump ship for Ligue 1’s Montpellier and is currently side-lined with a ‘muscular injury’. Silvan Widmer’s surges from right-back and skipper Fabian Frei’s influence in midfield caught the eye during a perhaps surprisingly straightforward rout of last year’s semi-finalists, Eintracht Frankfurt in the last-16.
An indisputably feel-good story would play out if Basel’s striking substitute Ricky van Wolfswinkel were to emerge from the bench and score a late winner. Having undergone surgery this time last year for a brain aneurysm – which was only discovered after he suffered a mid-game head injury and was subsequently scanned as part of concussion protocol – it has been a long road back for the Dutchman.
Six months on from being diagnosed, the ex-Norwich and Sporting striker made his return in February, managing only nine minutes of action before the pandemic struck. Then, following the Swiss Super League’s resumption – some 343 days since his life-threatening condition was first discovered – Van Wolfswinkel scored against FC Zurich. European glory to follow would be asking too much – surely?