6 Bold Predictions for Europa League Last 16

Tom Sunderland@@TomSunderland_Featured ColumnistMarch 12, 2014

6 Bold Predictions for Europa League Last 16

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    With European competition now entering its latter stages, the Europa League field has been whittled down to the last 16, with a quarter-final place at stake for those teams entering their first-leg fixtures on Thursday.

    Some matchups of a Champions League standard are now on the slate, with the meeting of Italian giants Juventus and Fiorentina, Porto playing hosts to Serie A powerhouses Napoli and Tottenham's collision with Benfica just some of the highlights on show.

    Heading into the first-leg meetings, we've taken a crack at making some predictions for how things will pan out during those initial encounters.

1. Spurs Stall Against Benfica's Fluid Motion

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    Tottenham managed to edge their way past Dnipro in the round of 32 thanks to a second-leg revival that ensured their European campaign survived, but Benfica won't be as forgiving in the last 16.

    The current leaders of the Portuguese top flight only just missed out on a place in the knockout stages of this season's Champions League and showed in a 4-0 drubbing of PAOK that they're part of the upper echelon at this level.

    Spurs have the honour of playing at home first in this tie, but Tim Sherwood's hosts won't be able to break down the Eagles' defence, the finest in the Primeira Liga right now, having conceded an average of just 0.59 goals per game thus far in the season.

    The North Londoners have failed to find their flexible bone at time this term, struggling with an inconsistent starting line-up, and Benfica's domestic dominance means that they'll be able to devote all assets to their Europa League run.

2. Napoli Will Dominate at the Estadio Dragao

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    Despite boasting a solid reputation on Europe's shores, the current Porto side hasn't been up to the same standards as in recent campaigns when competing internationally this season.

    The Dragons were found out in a Champions League group with Atletico Madrid, Zenit St. Petersburg and Austria Wien, whereas the Azzurri only just got beaten to the qualification punch by Borussia Dortmund and Arsenal in their pool.

    Now in Europe's second-most prestigious competition, Napoli still possess a more structured balance in their squad, something that Porto are lacking and that Eintracht Frankfurt exploited in the last round.

    Gonzalo Higuain was one of those players who made the most of Napoli's very few chances against Swansea City in the round of 16, but Porto haven't got the same defensive solidity right now and will hand Napoli a first-leg lead as a result.

3. Ludogorets Razgrad Continue to Fly a Strong Bulgarian Flag

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    The Bulgarian underdogs that every hipster is eager to support right now, Ludogorets Razgrad have been a pleasant surprise in booking their place among the last 16.

    And the journey isn't set to end just yet, either, with the minnows welcoming Valencia to Sofia's Vasil Levski National Stadium on Thursday.

    Valencia showed in their second-leg stalemate against Dynamo Kiev in the first round that their attack can be restrained, and that's something the Eagles from Razgrad did magnificently in their group trials, conceding just two goals in six outings.

    Though holes were opened up against Lazio a fortnight ago, Ludogorets Razgrad will get the defensive train back on track this week, and it will pave the way to a lead going into the second leg.

4. Fiorentina Keep the Italian Clash of Titans Alive

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    It was just this weekend that Juventus and Fiorentina met in Turin as part of their Serie A commitments, and la Viola are set for another away trip to the Old Lady this week.

    Last time out, Vincenzo Montella's side lost 1-0 to Antonio Conte's outfit, but Fiorentina's manager isn't the type not to learn from his mistakes.

    Spicing up the all-Italian affair, Fiorentina will succeed in boosting their Europa League hopes with a draw in Turin this week, their defence paying dividends ahead of a second-leg decider.

5. Jonathan Soriano Edges in Front of Top Scorer Race

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    With seven goals to his name already in Europe this season, Red Bull Salzburg's Jonathan Soriano already stands as the Europa League's highest scorer, although Roman Bezjak of Ludogorets Razgrad lies just one score behind.

    This Thursday, the ex-Barcelona B forward travels to Basel in an bid to see his side continue their trajectory in the competition, and it's set to be a successful trip.

    The Swiss giants kept just one clean sheet in their six Champions League group fixtures this season, and Salzburg have been in frighteningly good scoring form at times, albeit their defence not always as impressive.

    Soriano has been at the root of that major positive, and Basel will bend enough for the Spaniard to break their lines in Switzerland.

6. Goal Count Drops Below 20 for First-Leg Encounters

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    The Europa League round of 16 was a veritable goal-fest, with the second-leg matches alone accounting for an incredible 47 goals, an average of more than three per game.

    However, more than anything this came as a result of the inferior defences left in the tournament's running.

    It;s a spectacle that won't be recreated in the last 16 with higher-quality sides unwilling to take as many chances now lining up.

    Instead, the scoring for this week's first legs will drop by more than half, with fewer than 20 goals set to be score in the eight matches, with sides a lot more wary now of what's at stake in the contest.