Analysing Chelsea's Europa League Contenders
It's certainly not the European prize that Chelsea envisaged themselves competing for this season, but following the meek surrender of their Champions league crown, the Blues will now have to re-tune their attention to battling for the Europa League.
With most of the continent's attention being focused on Champions League last 16 ties at Celtic Park, the Santiago Bernabeu and the Donbass Arena, current holders of the competition Chelsea have slipped under the radar in preparation to make their Europa bow against Sparta Prague.
No English side has won the Europa League or UEFA Cup for over ten years now, and although Chelsea are amongst the bookies favourites to end that run, they'll have to find a way past some talented teams.
I take a look at eight sides that will all have their eyes on Europe's second most prestigious club prize.
Anzhi Makhachkala are a mouthful for any commentator and the big spending Russians will certainly be a handful for any side they're paired against.
The Dagestanis were unheard of a couple of years ago, but thanks to massive investment from from commodities billionaire Suleyman Kerimov, they are now one of the most talked about teams on the continent.
Kerimov's mega bucks have lured the likes of Samuel Eto'o, Lassana Diarra and Yuri Zhirkov east, and Anzhi made the biggest splash in the January transfer window by lavishing €35million to procure one time Chelsea target Willian from Shakhtar Donetsk.
Willian and Eto'o have the ability to get the goals to take Guus Hiddink's team into the latter stages and ventures into sub-zero Moscow are always fraught with danger.
The structure of the Russian league means Anzhi haven't played a competitive fixture since December, but if they can overcome Hannover 96 in the round of 32 they will be a dangerous proposition moving into the latter stages when domestic duties recommence.
Zenit St Petersburg
Zenit St Petersburg are the other Russian club aiming to bankroll themselves into the European big time, and their spending patterns make Anzhi look decidedly frugal.
Gas giants Gazprom have been pumping in the cash to make Zenit a Russian superpower, and the spectacular signings of Hulk and Axel Witsel confirmed the ambitious owners grander designs.
Luciano Spalletti has guided the club to two successive domestic championships and Zenichiki will be expected to go on a decent Europa League run.
They are arguably a more complete side than Anzhi with Bruno Alves, Domenico Criscito and Aleksandr Anyukov manning a defensive supported by Russian national team midfield contingent Igor Denisov, Roman Shirokov, Vladimir Bystrov and Viktor Fayzulin.
The purchases of Hulk and Witsel have had a mixed effect with team morale said to have been affected by those big earners joining a close knit bunch, but if Spalletti can unify the side, the 2007 UEFA Cup winners will be in with a chance this time around.
They've been paired against Liverpool in the round of 32, and that should give a good indication of whether this lot are the real deal or a load of money men chasing the cash.
It's worth noting that technically Tottenham have beaten Manchester United over two legs this season, and any side who come out unscathed against the Premier League champions elect will be in with a shout.
Andre Villas-Boas has recovered from his Chelsea disaster to mould Spurs into an upwardly mobile unit, and the pace and penetration of Gareth Bale and Aaron Lennon from the wings will test any defence in Europe.
Tottenham's chances of success in the competition haven't been aided by a difficult draw against Olympique Lyon, and even if the north Londoners beat the French side, Inter Milan are likely to lie in wait in the next round.
Doubts remain over whether they have the strikers to make a difference when it matters, and Sandro will be a big loss in tricky away ties.
AVB may also decide to prioritise on a top four league finish but on their day Spurs–with Bale in full flow– can beat any side left in this competition.
The French side are far from the dominant force they were at the beginning of the millennium, but after a couple of years in transition, Lyon are finding their feet once again.
Remi Garde's young team are chasing big spending PSG all the way in Ligue 1, and they possess enough continental know-how to go the distance.
Skipper Maxime Gonalons is the heartbeat of the team and keeps things ticking over in midfield whilst Bafetimbi Gomis and Lisandro Lopez have the firepower to score anywhere on the continent.
Like Tottenham they haven't been helped by a tricky draw, and even if they get the better of Spurs, Inter Milan will be on the other side.
However, Garde is earning many plaudits for his shrewd management and if they get some wind in their sails, Lyon could go places.
Liverpool's Jekyll and Hyde form in the Premier League has infuriated their fans, yet it makes them dangerous opposition when it comes to cup football.
The Reds largely outplayed champions Manchester City on their own pitch a fortnight ago but, in keeping with an indifferent season, followed that up with a 2-0 home loss to West Brom on Monday.
The three time UEFA Cup winners have a history in this competition, and nobody will fancy a European night under the lights at Anfield.
Luis Suarez is arguably Europe's best out and out striker at the moment, and his fledgling partnership with Daniel Sturridge could be lethal on the counter away from home.
Steven Gerrard and Jamie Carragher will see this competition as something as a swansong and with a top four league finish looking out of reach, manager Brendan Rodgers should be going all guns blazing in this arena to salvage what is turning out to be a damp squib of a season.
A tricky tie with Zenit St Petersburg is first up and if they can edge past the Russians, Liverpool will be a team plenty will want to avoid towards the business end.
There are plenty of similarities between Chelsea and Inter Milan in that the winners of two of the last three Champions League's now find themselves fighting in the Europa League.
Inter are also well adrift of the league pace but that arguably strengthens their cause in this competition.
Like Chelsea they continue to have a core of their European Cup winning team, and therefore that makes them strong contenders to lift the pot in Amsterdam.
They have struggled to string sequences of results together all season and their away form is a concern, but the Narazzurri still contain dangerous match winners in the shape of Rodrigo Palacio, Antonio Cassano and Diego Milito and those goals can easily carry Inter into the quarterfinals.
A likely last 16 encounter versus either Tottenham or Lyon will see what the San Siro giants are made of, and if Andrea Stramaccioni's side can find some form and fluency, they have the experience and quality to have a big say in the destination of the trophy.
Chelsea went down their 3-1 last season and were lucky not to be dead and buried before eventually rescuing the tie at Stamford Bridge.
Walter Mazzarri's side have won nine of their twelve league games at home this season, scoring 30 goals, and star striker Edison Cavani is once again scoring for fun.
The Uruguayan has netted 27 times in 26 games in all competitions this season including seven in five Europa League games. That potency combined with a fierce record on their own patch dictates Napoli will be in the shake up.
The draw has also been kind to La Partenopei and they should see off Viktoria Plzen without much fuss before meeting either BATE Borisov or Fenrbahce a stage further on.
One side Chelsea will definitely be keen to avoid are Atletico Madrid,
The Europa League holders terrorised the Blues in the European Super Cup back in August with long time Chelsea target Radamel Falcao torturing his suitors with a clinical hat-trick.
Los Rojiblancos are also in gallant pursuit of Barcelona in La Liga having won all twelve of their games at the Vicente Calderon and few sides left in the competition will come away from there unscathed.
Diego Simeone has transformed Atleti into an obdurate and organised bunch without compromising their attacking instincts. That combination means they are many bookmakers favourites to repeat last seasons success.
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