While the Champions League perhaps deservedly steals the headlines on the European soccer front, its sister competition, the Europa League, has provided some equally interesting play thus far. And on Thursday, all 16 teams involved take to the pitch for the second leg of their ties.
With several of the ties still well in the balance, it could take just a singular moment of inspiration from any player to shift the tide and put their team in position to go through. Who might some of these players be?
Hatem Ben Arfa
Newcastle United and Anzhi Makhachkala battled to a 0-0 draw in Moscow last week, meaning there's all to play for at St. James' Park Thursday. The hosts will be looking towards their French dynamo, who missed Sunday's Premier League duel with Stoke due to dead leg.
How important is he to this Newcastle side? Take it from manager Alan Pardew:
"He's a massive player at this level. For us, he's our [Liverpool's Luis] Suarez - he's that different player, someone who in a tight game can create something out of nothing… He's a fantastic player - tremendous technique and a great mentality to be one of the best players in the world."
-- via NUFC's official site
That's some lofty praise for the 26 year old. Against an Anzhi side that's allowed just seven goals in nine Europa League matches, Pardew will be hoping his words ring true in front of the home support.
Jose Javier Barkero
Levante and Rubin Kazan also played out a 0-0 draw, but the Spaniards were disappointed to not get a better result at home. They now travel to Russia to face an extremely stiff defense that has let in just four goals in nine games in the competition.
And with two strikers missing—Michel is suspended and Nigerian striker Obafemi Martins is on his way to Seattle after buying out his contract (via Seattle Times)—it'll be up to veteran Jose Barkero to shoulder the load.
The club's leading scorer after Martins' departure, Barkero, will be the main source of danger for the Valencian side with the striking options limited. The midfielder is already a hub of play, he'll just now have to do more work of his own.
Chelsea's run as Champions League title-holders saw them dumped unceremoniously into the Europa League, where they struggled to get past Sparta Prague in the round of 32. Their hero on that occasion? Big-money summer-signing Eden Hazard.
The Belgian phenom scored a stoppage-time goal in the second leg to prevent extra time at Stamford Bridge, sparing interim manager Rafa Benitez's blushes. This has been a disastrous season for the Blues, and an early exit from the Europa League could be the ultimate nadir.
Currently behind 1-0 to Romanian giants Steaua Bucharest, Chelsea will need some major inspiration in order to turn things around. And Hazard looks ready to be just the man to deliver it. He came on as a sub in Chelsea's FA Cup draw with Manchester United and scored to help his team make the comeback.
Benfica made a good start to their round-of-16 adventure, picking up a 1-0 victory over Bordeaux. However, they've still got a lot of work to do. They'll want to pick up at least one goal in France to keep things comfortable, and the man to do it is Oscar Cardozo.
The Paraguay international is one of the Primeira Liga's most consistent scorers, with 15 goals already to his name this season. Benfica boast a powerful attacking threat, with Cardozo supported by the likes of Lima and Rodrigo.
But in travelling to France, they come up against a Bordeaux side that's allowed just seven goals in nine Europa League games, and has held the powerful Paris Saint-Germain to a solitary goal over two games. If Benfica are to break through and get a vital away goal, Cardozo will be the man to supply it.
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