The Premier League’s love affair with European football continues on Valentine’s Day with Chelsea, Tottenham, Liverpool and Newcastle all in Europa League action.
Chelsea travel to Sparta Prague in the last 32, holding the unwanted record of being the only Champions League holders to exit the the European Cup in the group stage the following season.
Nonetheless interim manager Rafa Benitez has called the Europa League “a massive competition” and is expected to field a strong team as he looks to bring the trophy to Stamford Bridge.
John Terry has been declared fit and travels to the Czech capital despite missing the 4-1 win against Wigan. Gary Cahill also travels after his withdrawal from last Saturday’s game. Both are likely to start as due to David Luiz's suspension.
New signing Demba Ba is cup-tied after his move from Newcastle, leaving Fernando Torres as Chelsea’s only option upfront with Victor Moses rested following his African Nations Cup win with Nigeria.
Sparta have not played a competitive game since early December due to the Czech winter break, but Chelsea goalkeeper Petr Cech insists his former club are up for the challenge.
"For them, it will be the biggest game of their careers, so that's a danger for me because they will want to show they can do well against us," he said.
Meanwhile Tottenham will face Lyon at White Hart Lane with manager Andre Villas-Boas insisting the fixture represents a “Champions League test” for his side, highlighting the Europa League as an important tournament as he makes clear his desire to win a trophy.
Four years ago Lyon reached the semi-finals of the Champions League with the present-day Spurs No.1 in goal. But Hugo Lloris will not play against his former club as Brad Friedel is recalled to the starting line up, continuing the pattern set by AVB in previous Europa league ties this season.
With Jermain Defoe still sidelined, Emmanuel Adebayor will lead the attack. Usual midfield suspects Gareth Bale and Aaron Lennon are expected to start, and Lewis Holtby is also available. However, Tom Huddlestone is ruled out along with Sandro and Younes Kaboul.
In Russia, Liverpool face Zenit St. Petersburg in a fixture that has already been tarnished by racism. Zenit’s reputation took a hit in December when a group of fans called ‘The Landscrona’ published a manifesto stating they did not want non-white or gay players at their club.
Prior to the match Liverpool called on UEFA, Zenit and the local authorities to ensure their squad will be protected, with Brendan Rodgers saying any abuse would unify his team, although he will be advising his players on how to handle any racism at the Petrovsky stadium.
Cup-tied pair Daniel Sturridge and Philippe Coutinho miss out, but captain Steven Gerrard, Luis Suarez and Pepe Reina are all expected to start.
The Russian champions have played a string of friendlies during their winter break, but have not played a competitive match since December 10. However Zenit coach Luciano Spalletti insists they are ready for action: "We have trained well, done our homework and played a lot of good training matches, the boys are in good shape," he said.
Newcastle United play Metalist Kharkiv at St. James’ Park and will be confident having won 18 and drawing five of their previous home games in the Europa League.
Cheick Tiote is expected to start despite being arrested yesterday on suspicion of fraud, and Mapou Yanga-Mbiwa is set to make his first start for Newcastle since signing from Montpellier.
Yohan Gouffran and and Mathieu Debuchy are both cup-tied with the former unavailable anyway due to a leg injury sustained in the loss at Spurs. Hatem Ben Arfa and Sammy Ameobi are also sidelined but Alan Padrew has expressed his happiness in the options at hand:
“I am back to a team that's very similar to the one I had last year in terms of strength and quality - Yohan Cabaye, Steven Taylor, Mapou Yanga-Mbiwa, Moussa Sissoko - they have strengthened our hand, so for sure we are looking stronger in this competition," said Pardew.
Metalist are in their pre-season and have spent the past week in the North East with Pardew describing them as “a huge test.” The Ukranian side topped their group, winning four of their six games, only losing when progression was certain.
Valentine’s Day has provided the English sides with some tough fixtures but all are determined to do well as they look for success in the Europa League this season.
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