Previewing the Europa League Second-Leg Matchups
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Even as the Champions League round of 16 still has some drama left to provide, we can look forward to the conclusion of the same stage of the Europa League. Unlike the bigger competition, the Europa League has all eight matches played on one day: Thursday, in this case.
Earlier this week, I put out an assessment of which players would be pivotal in deciding a few of the matches. This time, we'll be looking to break down each of the eight showdowns this competition has thrown up.
Enough pleasantries, let's roll.
Newcastle-Anzhi (Aggregate 0-0)
Can Samuel Eto'o (R) get Anzhi into the last eight?
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English strugglers Newcastle are set to take on Russian high-fliers Anzhi Makhachkala in a big-time showdown. Having played out a scoreless draw at the Luzhniki Stadium, the teams still have all to play for, and anything could shift the balance.
The player I had identified as the man to watch out for here was Hatem Ben Arfa of the home side. The tricky Frenchman spurned his team's best chance to come out on top in the first leg, and surely he will not want to let his teammates down again.
But of course, his opponents possess one of the world's finest strikers of the last decade, Samuel Eto'o. The Cameroonian is still a force to be reckoned with, and with Anzhi able to advance with a scoring draw, he'll likely be in the mood to score.
With that, Mapou Yanga-Mbiwa will need to put in another sensational performance to combat this threat. The Frenchman was superb in the first leg, and keeping the Russian invaders off the scoresheet will be a tough task.
If one side can pick up an early goal, it could really set the tone for an exciting evening at St. James' Park.
Fenerbahce-Viktoria Plzen (Aggregate 1-0)
Aykut Kocaman's Fenerbahce side has an advantage entering the second leg.
This matchup might not have the prestige of some of the others in the Europa League, but it's still one that has plenty of intrigue. Turkish giants Fenerbahce secured both an away goal and a clean sheet in defeating Czech side Viktoria Plzen last week.
Fenerbahce has an experienced side, with players like Moussa Sow and Dirk Kuyt joining in from Lille and Liverpool respectively over the summer. And even on the road, they completely overwhelmed Plzen, who had been enjoying a good run in the competition.
The Czech representatives had won seven of nine matches in the buildup to this match, with the only loss a narrow 1-0 defeat to holders Atletico Madrid. They even returned the favor later in the group stage. But they looked outmatched in this one.
The fact that Fenerbahce have an away goal makes the turnaround that much more difficult considering the overall play in the first leg. Plzen will need to be beyond the top of their game, and maybe have a little bit of luck.
Lazio-Stuttgart (Aggregate 2-0)
Hernanes and Lazio were extremely strong in the first leg.
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Lazio have enjoyed a strong season in Serie A, with their hunt for another European berth still going. However, Thursday will see them looking to continue their hunt for a European trophy, a hunt that's looking quite strong after defeating Stuttgart 2-0 in the away leg.
This was actually a fairly even matchup in terms of chances created, but the Italians were actually able to convert their chances into goals. Scorers Ederson and Ogenyi Onazi silenced the Mercedes-Benz Stadium and put the hosts in a world of trouble.
With the second leg at the Stadio Olimpico in Rome, Stuttgart will need some sort of masterclass to pull this rabbit out of the hat. They'll be getting Vedad Ibisevic back for this one, and the Bosnian's top goalscoring ability will be a necessity.
However, it might not be enough. Lazio are unbeaten in this tournament and have kept four successive clean sheets at home (via UEFA), including matches against Spurs and Borussia Monchengladbach. The Romans look locks to take this one.
Chelsea-Steaua Bucharest (Aggregate 0-1)
This image about sums up last week's Steaua-Chelsea showdown.
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An inspired showing by the Romanian giants saw them control much of the first leg against Champions League holders Chelsea and were rewarded with a first-half penalty which Raul Rusescu converted to give his side the 1-0 advantage.
Returning to Stamford Bridge Thursday, Chelsea will be hopeful of doing enough to see themselves through to the last eight. But if they give up an away goal, they'll be under even more intense pressure than they already are.
At least they enter this match on the back of an inspired comeback in the FA Cup against Manchester United. But given their poor displays in Europe this season, including scraping by Sparta Prague in the last 32 at the death, nothing is a certainty here.
Chelsea need to take a stranglehold of this match as quickly and strongly as possible. If they give their visitors any sign of hope, they could easily find themselves dumped out. And that means fans would have more fodder for their "Rafa out" campaigns.
Bordeaux-Benfica (Aggregate 0-1)
Jaroslav Plasil leads Bordeaux in their quest to overturn their deficit.
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The battle of the "B" teams sees Portuguese leaders Benfica take a 1-0 lead to the south of France to take on Bordeaux. A Cedric Carrasso own goal made the difference in Lisbon, but there's still all to play for in this second leg.
Round of 32 action saw Bordeaux use the home crowd to its advantage in the second leg, picking up a 1-0 victory against Dynamo Kyiv to follow up a 1-1 draw in Ukraine. Those low goal totals are tough to look at, though, considering the losses of Jussie and Yoan Gouffran in the last transfer window.
Benfica, on the other hand, might not be in the competition they were in to start the season after finishing third in their Champions League group. But they were strong in taking out Bayer Leverkusen last round and got themselves situated for the second leg this week.
The Portuguese side boast some strong attackers in Oscar Cardozo and Rodrigo and will certainly be on the hunt for an away goal to strengthen their chances of going through. But Bordeaux have four straight clean sheets at home in this tournament (via UEFA) and will not bend easily.
Inter-Tottenham (Aggregate 0-3)
Javier Zanetti (L) and Inter face a monumental challenge against Spurs.
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This might be the only tie that looks like it's over. Gareth Bale and Tottenham dismantled Inter in much the same way they did in the Champions League a few seasons back with a strong performance in a 3-0 win at White Hart Lane.
The return leg brings us to the San Siro, where Inter just lost 1-0 to mid-table Bologna in a poor showing. This uninspiring run of form could cost the Nerazzurri a spot in next year's Champions League as well as this year's Europa League.
Spurs are looking like a favorite to make a deep run in this competition, with inspired play from Gareth Bale leading the way. Even center back Jan Vertonghen has three goals in his last two games, including a second-half marker in the first leg.
The San Siro can be a tough place to play in some cases. But if Bologna can waltz in and handle their business, what's stopping a strong team like Spurs? Not much, I'd say.
Rubin Kazan-Levante (Aggregate 0-0)
Rubin Kazan host Levante in a wide-open Europa League clash.
This is the only other of the eight ties to finish with a draw, and oddly enough it involves another Russian team. Rubin Kazan and Spanish side Levante played out a scoreless first leg, leaving the tie up in the air as we head back to Russia for the return.
Levante will have been hurt significantly by the exit of top scorer Obafemi Martins, as well as the sending-off of their other main striker, Michel, in the first leg. Not having accomplished scorers against a strong defense like Rubin could prove costly.
The Kazan side have a few strong scoring threats of their own, including Venezuela international Salomon Rondon and Israeli midfielder Bibras Natcho. This is the side that knocked out holders Atletico Madrid in the last round as well.
That result has surely given them bags of confidence that they can take down any side. As long as their defense remains strong to prevent a meaningful away goal, they can look to use their home field advantage and go through.
Zenit St. Petersburg-Basel (Aggregate 0-2)
Hulk (29) will have to put in a heroic performance to help Zenit go through.
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The final matchup in store for us sees moneybags Zenit St. Petersburg take on Swiss giants FC Basel. They left it late, but Basel looked much the better side in the first leg and picked up a quickfire double in the last ten minutes to give them a sizable advantage.
Even without last year's Champions League hero Xherdan Shaqiri, now with Bayern Munich, Basel came out fast and strong looking to get things going early. They were perhaps unlucky not to do so, with Vyacheslav Malafeev playing a key role.
Zenit were unable to snag an away goal, despite their best efforts in the second half. To make things worse, defender Neto was sent off late on, giving away the penalty resulting in Basel's second goal.
If Hulk can come up big in St. Petersburg, we could be in for an interesting show. Zenit will need to score and possibly score a lot if they let in a goal. They can certainly do it, but it'll be a big challenge.