The second leg of the 2013-14 UEFA Europa League's round of 16 is nearly upon us, so it's time to take a look at the eight games that will be played on Thursday and the key statistics that could decide every single tie.
With two Italian heavyweights in danger of missing out on the quarter-finals and last year's losing finalist looking even stronger this year, Thursday's set of games is shaping up to be must-watch television.
All statistics used are courtesy of Whoscored.com, unless stated otherwise.
|Time (GMT)||Home||Away||First leg||Second leg prediction|
|20:05||SV Salzburg||FC Basel||0-0||1-1|
Anzhi Makhachkala vs AZ Alkmaar
Key stat: Shot conversion rate
During the first leg, Anzhi fired an astonishing 14 shots at the AZ goal, and the Russian side had no goals to show for it.
Getting your shots off is important, but the point of the game isn't to take more shots than your opponent—it's to score goals. Anzhi's strikers placed half their strikes wide of the goal, and a repeat performance at the Anzhi-Arena would effectively end the team's European campaign.
Benfica vs Tottenham
Key stat: Spurs' possession
Tottenham currently lead the Europa League in possession, averaging 67 percent/game.
Coach Tim Sherwood wants his team to play their game, as opposed to letting an opponent dictate what happens on the pitch. While Benfica will be going into this tie with a two-goal lead, controlling the pace of the game and restricting Tottenham's chances of making plays is the team's best bet for qualifying.
Last weekend's loss to Arsenal was a heart-breaker for the Lilywhites, but the team looked to be very much in the tie until the very end thanks to dominating possession. Holding the ball doesn't win you games, but Tottenham will have a better chance at an upset if they can keep the ball in the team.
Fiorentina vs Juventus
Key stat: Juve are undefeated in 25 of their last 27 matches against Fiorentina
As fierce as this rivalry has been over the last few years, it hasn't been particularly exciting.
Fiorentina recorded an epic comeback win earlier this season, defeating the Bianconeri 4-2, and last week's draw was remarkable as Juventus looked far superior during the first 45 minutes and could have scored three or four goals easily.
It speaks to the club's fighting spirit, and La Viola will not back down on Thursday night in what will be a very tense game, according to BeIN Sports Tancredi Palmeri:
Howard Webb chosen to ref Fiorentina-Juventus return leg. Believe me, it will be tense like a Champions League semifinal— Tancredi Palmeri (@tancredipalmeri) March 18, 2014
But if history is any indication, Juventus will pull out the win in the end. The club is running away with the Italian league title and are head and shoulders above their domestic competition, including Fiorentina. La Viola will have to overcome history to beat their old rivals.
Valencia vs Ludogorets Razgrad
Key stat: Shot conversion rate
Remember how astonished I was at Anzhi not scoring a single goal out of 14 total shots?
Ludogorets took 21 against Valencia and couldn't even score from the penalty spot.
With Valencia defending a three-goal lead, this tie is all but over, and cards should become the most interesting statistic to watch as the game comes to a close, with potential suspensions always right around the corner.
Viktoria Plzen vs Lyon
Key stat: Fouls
Like Valencia, Olympique Lyon have all but ensured themselves of a spot in the quarter-finals and will travel to the Czech Republic with a three-goal lead. Barring a catastrophic meltdown, the French squad should advance comfortably.
During the first leg, Plzen recorded almost four times as many fouls as Lyon did, and like suspensions, injuries could derail any European campaign in a hurry. Down by three, it'll be interesting to see whether the hosts will come out with the same aggression we saw last week.
Napoli vs Porto
Key stat: Total touches for Gonzalo Higuain
Higuain is Napoli's top scorer and the team's most vital attacking component, and FC Porto were able to limit his touches during the first leg to 21 in total.
Credit midfield breakers Fernando and Steven Defour for executing the game plan perfectly. With Higuain spending most of the night as a non-factor, Napoli were unable to find any sort of offensive groove, and the result was an uninspiring 1-0 loss.
The hosts will be backed by one of the loudest group of fans in all of Europe, and with the Serie A title race all but over, Napoli has its eyes set on the Europa League. Porto will have to eliminate Higuain for another 90 minutes, but doing so at the San Paolo is infinitely harder than anywhere else.
Real Betis vs Sevilla
Key stat: Hours of rest
As shared by Real TV's Phil Kitromilides, Betis manager Gabriel Calderon is complaining about the fact his opponents on Thursday had the chance to rest for five more hours than his team.
Ahead of Thursday's derby Betis manager Calderon on the radio now complaining that Sevilla have had 5 hours more rest! Come on....— Phil Kitromilides (@PhilKitro) March 18, 2014
This isn't some hysterical manager complaining about something ridiculous: Calderon is playing mind games with his team's city rivals. Betis rank dead last in the Spanish La Liga and their upset win over Sevilla came as a complete surprise, putting their city rivals in a bit of a bad spot.
Sevilla are infinitely more talented as a team, and gaining the mental edge in this tie could be crucial if Betis want to advance to the quarter-finals. The more Sevilla players start thinking about trivial matters or get upset at the absurdity of Calderon's claims, the better Betis' chances will be.
Salzburg vs Basel
Key stat: Win streaks
Neither of these two teams has lost since the start of 2014. Let that sink in for a moment.
Sure, the Austrian league isn't exactly a power league and the Swiss might be even less competitive, but it's still an incredibly impressive statistic. By the end of this tie, it will come to an end.
One of these teams is going to emerge victorious on Thursday night. Question is: who will it be?