Europa League Team of the Week: Pogba Decisive for Juventus
The second round of the Europa League saw 32 teams in action across Europe on Thursday night and brought with it a series of interesting results as many underdogs once more confirmed the competition's capacity to surprise.
As ever, there were a number of outstanding individual performances that helped settle many of the clashes, with one or two players stepping up their performance level often enough to secure success in the tightest of encounters.
Who, then, were the standout performers who make our Team of the Week on this occasion?
GK: Vladislav Stoyanov (Ludogorets Razgrad)
Ludogorets Razgrad secured a historic away win against Lazio on Thursday, despite playing 40 minutes with only 10 men. Much of the success can be attributed to the excellence of goalkeeper Stoyanov.
The 26-year-old was in inspired form, making a string of top saves to keep his side ahead, including saving a penalty from midfielder Felipe Anderson.
He may not be the best known player in the team but is fully deserving of inclusion after his heroics in Rome.
DF: Christian Schwegler (Red Bull Salzburg)
Red Bull Salzburg’s sensational win over Ajax was not entirely the product of their attacking excellence with their defensive effort keeping the Dutch team at arm’s length throughout.
Key to the success was right-back Christian Schwegler, who was an impregnable wall on the flank all evening, ensuring that potential danger man Viktor Fischer was kept on the peripheries of the game.
Schwelger was consistently in the right place at the right time, was rarely beaten by his opponent and took few risks on the ball. While not spectacular, solidity is an often underrated quality.
DF: Konstantinos Katsouranis (PAOK)
Despite dominance of possession away in Thessaloniki, Benfica were largely unable to trouble PAOK goalkeeper Panagiotis Glykos, largely due to the excellence of veteran centre-back Konstantinos Katsouranis.
Katsouranis was a reassuring presence throughout for the hosts, helping retain the ball in the face of Benfica’s high pressing. Such calmness helped keep the Greeks in the game.
Defensively he was a rock at the base of the defence, winning every aerial challenge on the night while consistently stymieing the Portuguese as an attacking threat with crucial tackles and clearances.
DF: Jeremy Mathieu (Valencia)
For so much of his career Mathieu was an accomplished left-back, but the Frenchman has shown of late that he is growing ever more comfortable in the role of centre-back.
Valencia's comfortable 2-0 win away in Kiev on Thursday was an impressive success and Mathieu's reassuring presence as the side's distributor from the centre of defence was a major contributing factor to the success.
Defensively he was only rarely tested and passed with flying colours on a night when Valencia showed that they could be real contenders for this year's Europa League title.
DF: Ivan Strinic (Dnipro)
Croatian left-back Ivan Strinic may not be a particularly well-known name compared to many of his compatriots, but he showed impressive defensive qualities in nullifying the threat of Spurs' Andros Townsend on Thursday.
Townsend can be an elusive runner and is a danger when given space to shoot in and around the area, but Strinic ensured he was forced to fire in his efforts from range and was rarely able to hit the byline.
Strinic also showed comfort on the ball himself, aiding the Dnipro attack on several occasions and helping to create space by stretching play on the left.
MF: Wayne Routledge (Swansea)
Swansea were in fine form as they took on Napoli at the Liberty Stadium and will feel unfortunate to have come away with only a 0-0 draw for their fine showing.
At the forefront of the Swans' effort was winger Wayne Routledge, whose elusive runs were a considerable problem for the Italian defence all evening.
The former QPR and Crystal Palace man has his limitations but when confident and given space to run in behind opponents can be a considerable threat to any side. On this occasion, he was approaching his best.
MF: Paul Pogba (Juventus)
French midfielder Paul Pogba has had better nights than at the Juventus Stadium on Thursday, but he was the one player in black and white who consistently looked to change the situation of the game.
Ultimately, his efforts were rewarded in the closing minutes of the clash when his placed strike into the corner ensured that a lacklustre Juve will take a two-goal lead to Turkey.
Pogba made mistakes, but his quality on the ball was evident throughout. His attitude in not accepting the status quo, though, was key to Juventus’ eventual comfort on the night.
MF: Ivan Rakitic (Sevilla)
Sevilla were far from their best in a 2-2 away draw with Slovenian side Maribor, but there can be no questioning Croatian Ivan Rakitic's contribution to the tie.
Rakitic was at the centre of everything for the Spanish side, dropping deep from his attacking midfield position to get on the ball and spread play to his fellow offensive players.
Two assists were the reward for his industry and determination to take the game by the scruff of the neck, but his effort was not matched by those around him.
MF: Sadio Mane (Red Bull Salzburg)
Red Bull Salzburg's 3-0 away win at Ajax on Thursday was a massive shock and was in large part owing to the excellent performance of 21-year-old midfielder Mane.
The Senegalese winger terrified right-back Ricardo van Rhijn with his dribbling prowess all evening, besides getting himself on the scoresheet in a devastating opening half-hour for the visitors.
Mane has been tipped for great things of late and is building an impressive reputation in Austria. More performances like this and his time at the club will not last too much longer.
FW: Yevhen Konoplyanka (Dnipro)
Dnipro secured a late victory over Tottenham from the penalty spot and, while there may have been little between the two sides, the best player on the field by a distance was Konoplyanka.
While his goal from the penalty spot was a straightforward finish, the Ukrainian flyer was a menace for Spurs all evening, at times dribbling past opponents with impressive ease.
Konoplyanka was on the radar of Premier League sides in January and while he was unable to complete a move ahead of the transfer deadline, more performances like this will ensure a summer move is once more on the radar.
FW: Joselu (Eintracht Frankfurt)
Spanish striker Joselu scored a stunning effort to pull his side back into a fixture with FC Porto on Thursday night, with Eintracht having appeared to be heading to certain defeat at 2-0 down to their hosts.
The effort, though, was the catalyst for a resurgence and the Bundesliga side will feel delighted to have emerged from the Dragao with a draw to their name.
Joselu has been in decent form of late and was a persistent menace to the Porto defence with his tireless work rate and determination to link up with his side's midfield. The second leg is now perfectly poised for a tie to remember.
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