Though lacking the prestige of the Champions League, the Europa League boasts a bevy of scintillating teams vying for the trophy. Thursday’s round of 32 second leg matches should provide immense entertainment for fans eager for more European action.
FK Rubin vs. Atletico Madrid
Winners of the 2010 and 2012 editions of the competition, reigning champions Atletico Madrid have had spectacular year or so. Coach Diego Simeone has turned Madrid’s perennial second club into a well-oiled machine, leading the club to a seven month unbeaten run lasting until November of this year.
Their domestic form has been impressive as well, as they currently sit in second place in La Liga, four points ahead of arch-rivals Real Madrid. Rubin however shocked the Madrid side and snapped their 21 game home winning streak to win 2-0 at the Vicente Calderón.
Up 1-0 and down to ten men, Rubin capitalised when Atletico keeper Sergio Asenjo ventured up field deep into stoppage time to try to force a game tying goal, only for Rubin to quickly counter and score on the empty net.
Though they have a mountain to climb, Atletico will hope that the tournaments top scorer for the past two years, Radamel Falcao, can produce a bit of magic to pull his side back into the tie.
Olympique Lyon vs. Tottenham
After a first leg full of highlight-reel goals, the tie is still wide open and set up for an exciting second leg. Though Tottenham hold a slim 2-1 lead, Lyon’s away goal could prove to be crucial as the Lilywhites travel to the Stade de Gerland.
Former Chelsea coach Andre Villas-Boas has a history of success in the competition after winning the tournament in 2011 with Porto, and he will look to high-flying winger Gareth Bale to lead his team into the next round. The Welshman has scored his clubs last six goals, with Tottenham recording three wins and one tie in that period.
Though it is their last chance at silverware this season, Villas-Boas may deem Champions League football more important for the club and prioritise league games over European competition in order to secure fourth spot in the Premier League table. Lyon will be looking to take advantage of their home crowd and Tottenham’s apparent reliance on their star winger.
Steaua vs. Ajax
After a 2-0 win for Ajax in Amsterdam, Seaua have it all to play for as both clubs head to Romania. Ajax are in red hot form, outscoring opponents 12 goals to one in their last five games.An attack-minded encounter is in store as Steaua will look to reverse their deficit at their home stadium, and must come out aggressive at home.
Although they are a young team, Ajax have shown maturity in European competitions this season, handily defeating reigning English champions Manchester City at the Amsterdam Arena in the Champions League. Capable of producing electric performances, Christian Eriksen will be a key player for the Amsterdam club. His distribution to Danish wunderkind Viktor Fischer and Barcelona loanee Isaac Cuenca up top will be key in obtaining the crucial away goal that can all but sentence the tie.
Liverpool vs. Zenit St. Petersburg
Liverpool will look to capitalise on their last chance at silverware this season when they face Zenit at Anfield. New signings Daniel Sturridge and Philippe Coutinho have both hit the ground running at their new club since the January transfer window, and when combining with Luis Suarez look to have finally given Liverpool the attacking verve it has been missing in recent memory.
The Reds will be looking to carry the momentum from their 5-0 thrashing of Swansea into the Zenit clash as they seek to overturn their 2-0 deficit. The Russians will try to make life difficult for Liverpool, and are keen to continue their Europa League campaign.
Though their integration hasn’t been as seamless since their introduction in the January transfer window, Brazilian striker Hulk and Belgian playmaker Axel Witsel both ooze talent, and are capable of producing something special at moment’s notice. Russian international Aleksandr Kerzhakov is also capable of finishing off any chances that come his way.
Many of Europe’s traditional top clubs are also playing on Thursday, including Chelsea, Inter Milan, and Napoli. The Europa League has produced enthralling football this season, and expect more to come as the tournament advances deeper into the knock-out stages.
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