The Europa League is looking stronger than ever this year.
With big-brother Champions League churning out a few shock exits, you could be mistaken for thinking that some of the ties look like they belong in Europe's premier competition. Liverpool vs. Zenit, Tottenham vs. Lyon look like particularly tasty fixtures.
But with a lot of the teams getting stronger, it will prove to be increasingly difficult for others to progress. Mixed in with such a strong line-up, some sides certainly look to be in over their head.
So which sides have got the toughest tasks ahead of them?
The stand-out fixture in this respect has to be Napoli vs Viktoria Plzeň. After a slow start to its campaign as a whole, Napoli is beginning to reach the levels that saw them fare so well last year. Star man Edinson Cavani is the competition's most prolific forward and you would expect him to have a field day against the minnows from Czech Republic. He has been in sparkling form since the turn of the year.
Plzeň did well to top their group in qualifying, finishing ahead of holders Atletico Madrid nonetheless. But as the pressure increases and the quality rises, I am unsure as to whether they can get up to that level. Expect Napoli to win — and win big.
Another Italian side that look to have an easy passage into the last-16 is Inter Milan. Having finally put the Wesley Sneijder affair to bed in January, they will be hoping for a more settled and positive end to the season. They recruited well in January, with Mateo Kovacic looking like an excellent pick-up.
They take on CFR Cluj, who are another side who have dropped out of the Champions League. Cluj actually managed to turn over Manchester United United in a remarkable victory earlier in the campaign, but aside from that, the Romanians offered little to the group-stages.
With things looking like they might be on the up and up again at F.C. Internazionale Milano, it is hard to see anything other than a comfortable win for the Milanese giants. Cluj fans will be left to watch re-runs of that victory over United.
The last team that is really going to struggle to get through its tie looks to be Sparta Prague. They have the daunting task of taking on the European Champions, Chelsea, after the London outfit were eliminated from a tough group of the Champions League proper.
Rafael Benitez has now spoken many times about his desire to win a trophy at the club, which points toward Chelsea fielding a strong team throughout the Europa League knockout stages. Chelsea will also be out to become the first team to simultaneously hold the Champions League and Europa League trophies. Not really a statistic it would have set out to achieve at the start of the season, but it would certainly prove to be an aesthetically pleasing one if achieved!
Sparta started their Europa League campaign well, with two wins from their opening three games. But they struggled over the line to qualify for the last 32 following a run of three uninspiring draws.
Maybe they can draw inspiration from their opponents' performances in last season's Champions League knockout stages. They will have to put in two momentous defensive performances to keep Chelsea from bagging a few in either leg. Unfortunately for them, I just can't see it.
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