A Look at the Major Teams Left in the Competition
Article by @TheGameOnPaper
As a big fan of the Europa League, Thursdays in a European week of football are never dull for me. It is a competition which has come under a lot of undeserved criticism from people – fans and managers alike, some even calling it a waste of time compared to the more prestigious UEFA Champions League. Whilst the long, drawn-out nature of it can be a bit of a drag, the competition proper is one to savour when the knock-out stages dawn in the second half of the season. Filled with quality players as well as some big name teams, there will continue to be thrills and excitement right up until the 15th May – when the final will be played at the stunning Amsterdam ArenA. So with all of this, I was very happy to see the return of the competition on Thursday.
The Amsterdam ArenA is guaranteed to play a part in the final, and the local occupants Ajax will be hoping to play an even bigger role come May. The hosts of the final had a convincing 2-0 home win against Steaua Bucharest of Romania, putting them in a very strong position for the return leg on the 21st February. Ajax, one of my dark horses for the competition, are renowned for their impressive youth set up and attractive styles of football – which can be seen by their second goal of the game, scored by impressive young defender and full Netherlands international Ricardo van Rhijn. An impressive performance in the Champions League group stages saw them finish 3 rd ahead of Man City, and such a historically huge club will not be phased by the potential match-up with another English club, Chelsea, should both go through.
Ajax’s potential opponents Chelsea also ran out winners in their first leg, winning 1-0 away at Sparta Prague in a rather dull game. The Blues put out an almost full strength squad, but relied on the introduction of Brazilian Oscar to score – just 45 seconds after coming off the bench. Whilst Chelsea take a lead back home to Stamford Bridge, Liverpool have it all to do at Anfield in the second leg to progress. Despite a rather impressive performance for 60 odd minutes, Brendan Rodgers’ side succumbed to a 2-0 defeat away at free-flowing Zenit St Petersburg. Luis Suarez missed a few golden
opportunities and, after conceding possession cheaply in the middle of the park, Hulk’s stunning strike made them pay - firing the Russians to life, with Semak doubling the lead just 2 minutes after that. There were signs of the floodgates opening after that but Liverpool held on to keep it down to a 2 goal deficit in the end, and whilst it will be a very difficult task to go through, it is still possible with such a magnificent European atmosphere on The Kop. Both teams had phases of looking very impressive, and whichever of these sides progress are sure to be in running for the trophy come the end of the season off the back of a very good game.
There were shocks elsewhere as Atletico Madrid and Napoli, second in La Liga and Serie A respectively, were beaten at home. The Italians fell 0-3 to the Czech side Viktoria Plzen, whilst the current holders lost 0-2 against Rubin Kazan (whose last trip to Spain resulted in an even more impressive 2-1 win at the Camp Nou), after bizarrely sending goalkeeper Sergio Asenjo up for a corner in the last minute. With the score at 1-0 Asenjo and Simeone gambled to try and get the equaliser by sending the former up, and a difficult task turned even more so when Pablo Orbaiz raced clear to slot into an empty net. Both Napoli and Atletico squandered some great chances to get something out of these games and a failure to take them means they require huge wins away from home in the second leg if they want to go through to the Round of 16.
Other teams with high hopes include Spurs and Lyon, who met at White Hart Lane in an exciting game. Spurs ran out 2-1 winners, thanks to a late second Gareth Bale freekick of the night, one either side of a stunning volley from Lyon’s Samuel Umtiti. Borussia Monchengladbach were involved in a 3-3 thriller at home to Lazio, whilst an impressive Bayer Leverkusen failed to convert their superb Bundesliga form into a win against SL Benfica, losing 1-0 in Germany. All six of these sides are capable of going through to the next round, and next week promises to be very exciting.
That was a brief round-up of the main teams who I feel have a chance of reaching the latter stages of the competition this year, in what looks to be yet another strong year of European football. If you enjoyed this then please follow me on Twitter, or Email me if you wish to get in touch.