6 Things We Learned from Europa League Last 16 First Leg
Just 16 teams remain in the mix to win this season's Europa League, and following the first-leg clashes of Thursday evening, some sides are close to the exit door already.
Big wins for Porto, Lyon, Benfica and Valencia headlined the night, but every fixture of course holds vital significance to the tournament's outcome, with only the cream of the continental crop remaining.
Just a week remains until the pool is whittled down once more, with only eight berths available for the quarter-finals, and Thursday's first legs threw up a barrage of talking points and lessons that some teams would be wise to learn from.
1. Ludogorets Razgrad' Roller Coaster Ride Is Nearing Its End
There's one every season in the Europa League, and in this campaign it's been the turn of Bulgarian minnows Ludogorets Razgrad to play the role of "unassuming unknown making their presence felt among giants."
However, the Eagles of Razgrad look as though they're coming to the end of their European expedition after suffering a 3-0 home defeat against Valencia in their last 16 first-leg encounter.
Goals from Antonio Barragan, Federico Cartabia and Philippe Senderos mean that Ludogorets Razgrad have a nigh insurmountable task lying ahead of them for the away fixture.
The sending off of attacking midfielder Juninho Quixada also promises to hurt the hopefuls' chances of advancing, with a tough trip to Spain made all the more difficult thanks to his absence.
2. Porto's European Campaign Hinging on Improved Defence
Porto's defence this season hasn't quite been up to the standards that were set last term. In 2012/13, the Primeira Liga champions conceded an average of just 0.47 goals per game in league competition; this season, that statistic is up to 0.77.
Admittedly, it's still a very respectable number, but Europe's most prestigious competitions are unforgiving of even the slightest of declines.
The Dragons took a big step towards a prospective Europa League quarter-final with a 1-0 win over Napoli on Thursday. It was their first clean sheet in European competition since Sept. 18, 2013—their opening group fixture of this term's Champions League.
With such a thriving mass of quality midfielders and attackers in Luis Castro's squad, the goals will take care of themselves for Porto; it's merely a case of whether they can restrain their opponents from getting the upper hand through those means, too.
Porto now head to Naples with the ball in their court, but the tie very far from won. Their European journey hangs in the balance, depending on whether or not they can maintain such pristine defensive work away from home.
3. Fiorentina Get Their Turin Revenge
Beaten 1-0 in Serie A competition last weekend, Fiorentina claimed a morale-boosting draw against Italian rivals Juventus on Thursday evening as revenge for the league result that came just days before this trip.
A knockout fixture against the Bianconeri never promised to be a simple one for Vincenzo Montella's men, but a 79th-minute Mario Gomez equaliser in Turin paved the way to a crucial result for La Viola.
Antonio Conte's men have always been looked upon as front-runners to claim this particular piece of European silverware after falling out of Champions League contention.
However, WhoScored shows that there may be another Italian contender to consider, with Fiorentina boasting a majority of the possession on Thursday and their persistent knocking at the door paying dividends.
4. Red Bull Salzburg Can Be This Season's Dark Horse
Red Bull Salzburg have been a joy to watch in this season's enactment of Europe's second-most prestigious tournament.
During the group stage, no other side scored more goals than they did—Tottenham tied on 15—and the Austrians boast two of the competition's top-five assist makers, not to mention its top scorer in the shape of Jonathan Soriano (7).
Granted, a 0-0 draw at Basel on Thursday evening may not have been the advantage that Roger Schmidt was hoping his side would take back to the Red Bull Arena, but the result at the very least keeps the club's hopes of a quarter-final berth alive.
If anything, a clean sheet was very much needed for Red Bull Salzburg, whose 3-0 win at Ajax three weeks ago was just their second clean sheet away from home in this year's tournament.
Amidst all the Champions League dropouts and stars of the Europa League circuit, it seems the Red Bulls are a side capable of making that next step into the continental hierarchy, and the 2013/14 campaign promises to lend the club their opportunity to leave a mark.
5. Real Betis Draw First Blood in the Seville Derby
The last 16 draw was made all the more tantalising when La Liga local rivals Sevilla and Real Betis were drawn against one another, and it's the latter who head into the second leg with a far more confident stance, having claimed a 2-0 win from Thursday's first meeting.
Speaking to UEFA ahead of the fixture, Real Betis coach Gabriel Calderon stated that "this city [Seville] deserves matches like this. It should be a party for the fans."
And so it was, for the green and white half at least, with a fine performance from striker Leo Baptistao, on loan from Atletico Madrid, setting the pace.
Given the close proximity of the two teams, neither Seville outfit will be resting on their laurels ahead of next week's second leg, but Los Verdiblancos at least have something to smile about, far and away from their ongoing league woes.
6. Tottenham Come Undone Against Their First Real Test
It would be unjust to call the trials that Tottenham have faced up until this point subpar, but Benfica are the first team of genuine European quality to make their way to White Hart Lane in this season's Europa League.
Anzhi Makhachkala, Tromso, Sheriff Tiraspol and Dnipro aren't quite up to the same standards of the Portuguese giants, last year's finalists in this competition, so the 3-1 loss suffered by the North London hosts may not have come as a complete shock.
That being said, after being opened up by Chelsea on no less than four occasions over the weekend, this is another damaging defeat for Spurs, and one that puts their European campaign in real jeopardy.
A trip to Lisbon's Estadio da Luz is a daunting task in the best of circumstances, never mind when a side is suffering from a two-goal deficit. This was yet further evidence of how Tim Sherwood's side are lacking in top-four credibility.