Although the UEFA Europa League is considered a second-class tournament behind UEFA Champions League, there are a number of clubs under pressure to make a deep run in the continental event.
While everyone wants to succeed, a few clubs entered the season with higher expectations than others. Those that are especially struggling in domestic play need a strong run in the Europa League to try to save the year with a trophy.
Valencia is one club that could use a deep run, but they already have put themselves in good position with a 2-0 aggregate lead heading back to Mestalla Stadium. However, these clubs are not as fortunate and need a strong effort on Thursday to change their fate.
Napoli (0-0 vs. Swansea City)
Few clubs had a more active offseason than Napoli. Not only did they bring in manager Rafa Benitez, but they made notable additions in goalkeeper Pepe Reina and striker Gonzalo Higuain. This group had high hopes for a deep run in Champions League or at least a Serie A title.
Unfortunately, they had arguably the toughest UCL group, falling to Borussia Dortmund and Arsenal on tiebreakers. Domestically, they have fallen 15 points behind current leader Juventus and should be happy with just a top-three spot.
However, this season can still be a success if they can get back on track with a Europa League title.
This will not necessarily be easy thanks to an early matchup against Swansea City. The Premier League club held Napoli scoreless in the first leg and are hoping to complete the upset with a strong effort on the road.
After simply explaining, "We've got to score one more than them," Benitez laid out his full expectations, via Ben Gladwell of ESPN FC:
We play every game to win it; to impose ourselves. We all saw that Swansea play good, fast and intense Premier League football when they played us and when they played Liverpool. We're going to have to defend well, but also attack to score goals. Having possession is not the key, being precise in attack is.
If Napoli can take advantage of opportunities around the net, they should easily get by Swansea City in this second leg. After that, the sky is the limit for this talented group.
The question is how focused the group will be after a disappointing exit in Champions League.
Tottenham (0-1 vs. Dnipro Dnipropetrovsk)
Tottenham were part of a poor run for the English Premier League:
Not a good first leg for BPL teams in Europe. Europa League: Swansea, Tottenham. Champs League: Arsenal, Man City, Man United. 0 goals.— ESPN FC (@ESPNFC) February 25, 2014
Chelsea finally ended this streak, but even they could only manage a 1-1 draw against Galatasaray.
Tottenham certainly will hope to do better in the return to White Hart Lane, but they are in an interesting situation where they have to also care about league play. They are currently six points out of a top-four spot, and they cannot afford too many more losses if they want a bid to Champions League next season.
Some have entertained the fact a loss to Dnipro might be better because then Spurs can focus exclusively on the Premier League.
However, John Crace of ESPN FC provides the counter to this argument:
It's not as if there is any reason to expect a cup exit to prompt a massive enough improvement in Spurs' league form for the club to seriously challenge for a Champions League place. The gulf in points—and class—between Spurs and the four teams above them looks unbridgeable. Spurs wouldn't just have to start playing far better than they have been: one of the other teams would have to have an abject collapse. So better a Europa League run than nothing at all.
After years of struggles, it would be ridiculous for Tottenham to simply overlook what could be a deep run in the Europa League. They must put out their best team and do whatever it takes to come away with a victory in this round and any future matches.
Shakhtar Donetsk (1-1 vs. Viktoria Plzen)
Although the competition is relatively close compared to other years, Shakhtar Donetsk once again lead the Ukrainian Premier League and will likely come away as winners. This is no longer a big achievement for the dominant club.
Instead, it is important to build off these results with continued strong efforts in the continental leagues to keep bringing respect to Ukraine.
Shakhtar struggled in the away leg, only earning a 1-1 draw against Viktoria Plzen. According to Mircea Lucescu, this is because his side was extremely conservative. This will change in the home match, as he explained to Viktor Sharafudinov of UEFA.com:
We have to win and I'm expecting a difficult night. We will try and control the game, set a high tempo and score goals. It is also important to be prepared for their counterattacks and avoid goals from set pieces. Plzeň have been excellent away from home in the Europa League.
The club has a lot of talent from its Brazilian influence, including attacking stars like Bernard, Luiz Adriano, Douglas Costa and Alex Teixeira. This group has the skill to score at all times, and it makes Shakhtar extremely dangerous in this tournament.
With a strong effort in this match, the Ukrainian squad can keep up the momentum to make a deep run in the Europa League.
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