The first legs of the 2013-14 Europa League semi-finals are about to kick off, as Thursday night will see Benfica host Italian powerhouse Juventus while Sevilla and Valencia will square off in an all-Spanish affair.
The winners of the previous two editions, Chelsea and Atletico Madrid, both still feature in this year's Champions League semi-finals, further illustrating Europe's secondary club competition isn't all that far down from the level of its bigger brother.
Date: Thursday, April 24
Time: Both matches will kick off at 8:05 p.m. BST/3:05 p.m. ET
Benfica v Juventus
Last year's finalists Benfica locked up the Portuguese title this weekend with a 2-0 win over Olhanese and will be looking for the double when they host tournament favourites Juventus at the Estadio Da Luz in what figures to be one of the best semi-final matchups the tournament has seen in years.
Both clubs are historical football heavyweights and have either already won their respective league title or are very close to it. Both clubs are light on injuries and have no players suspended for this tie.
As shared by this fan, the visitors will have just two players doubtful for this match:
Carlos Tevez has struggled with his health in recent weeks, but Sebastian Giovinco has done an admirable job filling in for the Argentinian, who is yet to score in this year's Europa League.
"The Atomic Ant" figured to be an afterthought following a disappointing season, but an excellent run of form suddenly has the player looking like he could join his compatriots in Brazil this summer.
The potential loss of Arturo Vidal would be harder to work around though, as the Chilean has truly emerged as arguably the best box-to-box midfielder in all of football this season. Without him, Andrea Pirlo has been somewhat exposed in recent weeks, while the club has also missed his abilities in front of goal.
Silvio and Eduardo Salvio figure to be out for the remainder of the season for the hosts, with the latter deciding to undergo surgery on his fractured arm, as shared by Kelechi Nkoro:
Benfica have yet to lose at the Dal Luz this season, a remarkable feat in itself. The newly crowned Portuguese champions have looked dominant throughout the competition and must relish the chance to go up against arguably the best team still remaining in the tournament.
Juventus have struggled for much of the knockout stages but still managed to make it to the semi-finals without many difficulties (excluding the second leg against Fiorentina), and pundits have been claiming this team should be able to blow anyone out of the water the moment they decide to turn on the jets for a while now.
It is yet to happen, however, and Benfica are no scrubs. Much will depend on the availability of Vidal, as he makes the Bianconeri's midfield tick. Like so many cup ties, this match will most likely be decided in the return fixture.
Prediction: Benfica 2-1 Juventus
Sevilla v Valencia
TV info and live stream: This match will be broadcast on Setanta Ireland for UK viewers and Fox Sports 2 for viewers in the US, with mobile coverage available via Fox Sports Go and Setanta Sports Plus.
The visitors face somewhat of an injury crisis in defense, with Ricardo Costa, Jeremy Mathieu and Diego Alves all potentially missing out on this fixture, per WhoScored.com.
Valencia trail Real Sociedad by nine points for the final Europa League ticket in the Spanish La Liga, and at this stage of the season, it seems like the team's best chance of qualifying for European football again next year will be through this year's Europa League campaign.
Sevilla face no such issues, as the hosts are still in the running for entry into next year's Champions League, chasing Athletic Bilbao by just three points. Coke will sit out this match with a suspension while Sebastian Cristoforo will be out due to injury.
The hosts have certainly been the competition's most entertaining team so far, with an epic comeback win over city rivals Real Betis followed by a shock demolition of Portuguese giants FC Porto.
Valencia haven't exactly bored fans either though, turning around a seemingly impossible situation against Swiss side FC Basel thanks to an emphatic 5-0 demolition at home.
Many of the storylines will focus on Sevilla's Unai Emery, who left Valencia in 2012 following three third-placed finishes in four seasons.
Via Insidespanishfootball.com, the manager downplayed his connection to his former club during a press conference:
I’m 100 percent Sevilla. In all the teams I've managed, I have good memories. My time at Valencia made me a better manager and a better person, but right now my sentiment is 100 percent Sevilla. My only thoughts are doing the best I can for Sevilla. My only colours now are red and white, our colours.
All eyes will also be on Paco Alcacer, the latest in a seemingly endless line of talented strikers playing for Valencia. Since replacing Roberto Soldado when the latter left for Tottenham, the youngster has emerged as one of the most exciting attacking talents in Spanish football.
His three goals against Basel were vital to Valencia's turnaround in that match, and the 20-year-old will be looked at to lead the front line once again on Thursday night.
Prediction: Sevilla 1-1 Valencia
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