While looking at the sixteen progressed teams in Europe’s premier continental level competition – UEFA Champions League, the domestic football federations in Portugal, Netherlands and Russia have their cause for worry. None of the sixteen active teams represent the associations of the aforementioned nations whereas even teams from Denmark and Ukraine have managed to make a cut. However, looking at the very next level of the competition, they have reasons to smile to learn that as many as three teams from each of the leagues have managed to reach to the final sixteen in the Europa League which predominantly helps their respective associations strengthen the league’s co-efficient in the broader purview.
FC Porto, the current league leaders in Portugal enjoy a comfortable 11-point advantage over their closest rivals for the domestic title. At the continental level, Porto have always been threat to some of the bigger names. Under the tutelage of Jose Mourinho, they championed the dream to win the Champions League back in 2004 after reigning supreme in the erstwhile UEFA Cup in the immediately previous season. During the current edition of Europa League, the Portistas rode on an exuberant run of form winning five out of their six group games. During the first knock-out round, after an intense 180 minute action, they ended the campaign of Spanish rivals Sevilla with the virtue of away goal advantage as the final aggregate score read 2-2. In the next knock-out stage, they face the Russian side CSKA Moscow. Much like their Portuguese opponents, CSKA too had a dream run in the group stages followed by a narrow 1-2 aggregate victory over the Greek unit PAOK. The Moscow side are currently sitting second on the league table but the domestic form hardly holds any significance in the cup clashes as it all boils down to the performance on the day of action. While Porto are experienced campaigners at this stage, CSKA too have resoundingly announced their presence in Europe. This contest boasts of abundant vigour and intensity to offer.
Reigning Portuguese champions Benfica lock horns with Claude Makelele led French side Paris Saint-Germaine. Losing down a string of talented, prodigious youngsters in David Luiz, Angel De Maria and Ramires – who in search of greener pastures, parted ways with the club – Benfica were always deemed to experience a slump in their form and their domestic form much testifies this. However, they were instrumental in showing doors to troubled German outfit Stuttgart when the two met in the first knock out round of the tournament. A 4-1 beating of the Germans should steep their confidence considerably which is a reason to worry for American owned French team. PSG have lately recuperated their league campaign and are now only marginally adrift of the league leaders Lille. In Europe, they fared reasonably well in the group stages beating Sevilla in process of winning the group. However, during the knock-out clash with the Belarus champions BATE, they were held for a stalemate at home but thanks to the two away goals scored, they saw themselves advantage. PSG hold the advantage of playing the away leg first and hence can afford to do away without conceding a goal and wait for their moment of glory in a more familiar ambience.
The third and final remaining Portuguese team, SC Braga are meeting England’s traditional European stalwarts Liverpool. The Merseyside unit has lately demonstrated a drastic turn in form and under the reins of Kop legend Kenny Dalglish; they have began the repairing work afresh. With shrewd winter signings, they have tremendously strengthened the squad and the latest demolition of arch rivals Manchester United would have definitely raised their confidence beyond imaginations. Their Portuguese opponents stunned the world beating another English big guns Arsenal during the Champions League group stages from where they eventually failed to progress. During the first knock-out round, the last year’s runners up of the Portuguese league eased past the Polish champions Lech Poznan while Liverpool eliminated Sparta Prague in a thin 1-0 aggregate triumph. With their top players hitting the top of their game collectively, the Scousers are outright favourites to seal a spot in the last eight. Braga play the home leg first and would definitely remain focused on not to concede a precious away goal and take the game to Anfield with all to play for.
Liverpool’s compatriots Manchester City were held for a stalemate in the Round of 32 by the Greek side Aris during the first leg but the blue half of Manchester was put on a high at Eastlands when they treated the Greeks with hostility handing them over a humbling 3-0 defeat. Up next in the knock-out stages they travel to Eastern Europe to meet the Andriy Shevchenko led, historically opulent Dynamo Kyiv. The Ukrainian side shredded the Turkish giants Beskitas apart in their knock-out round meeting winning over a dominant 8-1 aggregate. The domestic title in Ukraine appears to be out of their reach which adds to their motivation in Europe with intentions to add to the trophy cabinet. Manchester City have so far registered a series of convincing wins in the tournament at various stages and under Roberto Mancini they do see a bright chance for themselves to bag the first European title since their last in 1970.
Much like the Portuguese, the Dutch too are fielding three Eredivise teams at this stage in the competition. The reigning champions FC Twente, after failing to advance from the group stages in the Champions League, qualified to play the Round of 32 in the Europa League where they beat the resolute Russian team Rubin Kazan. In the round of final 16, they face the Russian champions Zenit St. Petersburg. While Zenit have maintained persistence in their form at both domestic and European level, Twente have been far from last season’s form. Both these teams are reckoned strong contenders out of the remaining lot and hence this clash has all in making of a close contest.
Current Eredivise leaders PSV Eindhoven have been drawn to play Scottish champions Rangers. After an action packed second leg, Rangers edged past Portuguese team Sporting CP, marginalising the latter on the away goals whereas PSV convincingly beat current French league leaders Lille 3-5 over two legs. During the 1977-78 season, PSV won the then UEFA Cup; given the current form, they have what it takes to break the European jinx of the club and reclaim part of their glorious history. Their Scottish opponents for the clash are yet to win their first title in Europe but the form meter presently tilts slightly towards the Dutch side. With the first leg being played in Netherlands, PSV would look to build a strong enough lead to protect in the return fixture at Glasgow.
Can Liverpool go all the way in Europa League?
In Euro 2008, Russia stunned the world beating tournament favourites Netherlands at the Quarter Final stage. This is a good time for the Dutch to exact the revenge as their traditional powerhouses AFC Ajax face Russian outfit Spartak Moscow. In a very close affair with the Swiss side Basel in the previous round, The Russians just managed to nail it with a narrow 3-4 aggregate win but at this stage they face an uphill task to beat a team that has enough glory to boast of at the European level. Ajax had fairly comfortable outing in the previous knock-out round winning with a 5-0 aggregate score over Belgian champions Anderlecht after failing to go past the group comprising Real Madrid and AC Milan in the Champions League. With the Russians travelling to Netherlands for the first leg encounter, they have to rise in contrastive conditions from what they are used to. Ajax are expected to hold an edge in the first leg but will have to work out of their skins to advance past the Russians when they travel to the Eastern Europe.
Though Germany and Spain are among the conventional big names in European football, neither has managed to have no more than one team of their league in the last sixteen of the competition. Hence, both Bayer Leverkusen and Villarreal have enormous pride at stake being the only remaining flag bearers of their nation active in the tournament. Leverkusen have been instrumental in their Bundes Liga campaign this season and are touted to be finishing the league ahead of the big guns Bayern Munich. After ending the road for former champions Atletico Madrid in the group stages, they comprehensively drubbed the Ukrainian juveniles Metalist Kharkiv. Villarreal on the other hand have built an extensive promise surrounding them but have recently slipped a bit off it. However, eliminating Italian dark horses Napoli en route to the last sixteen was a big incentive on their account and must capitalise from here on. The winner of this contest shall pronounce a great supremacy over the future of the tournament.