Europa League Roundup: Benfica Thrash Everton, Prague Rivals Excel
I have to start this off by saying thank you to the people behind the scenes at uefa.com for moving their subscription video service away from Windows Media and into a Flash-based format. It’s allowed me to follow all the games from the comforts of my Mac. If you’ve not done so, I strongly recommend checking out their Replay service. I think it would be well-worth the price even if I only accessed the extended highlight packages never mind the full-match replays that I’ve watched.
Now onto the big story from Matchday 3 in the Europa League, which was Everton being thrashed 5-0 by Benfica. One could argue that Everton entered the game with a weakened squad.
They have several senior players out injured (Neville, Yobo, etc) and two players are Cup-tied (Johnny Heitinga and Lucas Neill) so manager David Moyes had to field a makeshift backline due to the late withdrawal of Leighton Baines. While they did show weaknesses at the back with two inexperience fullbacks, Everton’s midfield were also outclassed depsite fielding regular starters like Tim Cahill, Marouane Fellaini and Diniyar Bilyaletdinov.
It would be wrong to put the defeat solely on Everton, credit must be given to Benfica for a good performance. In particular one of European football’s forgotten stars, Javier Saviola (the former Barcelona and Real Madrid striker is pictured above), played a vital role. Saviola scored a wonderful volley and had a big part in two of the other five goals. Saviola combined nicely with midfielder Angel Di Maria, who assisted on three of the goals and nearly scored one of his own.
I have to admit that I have an affinity for the Czech Republic as well as teams from the Czech league. So it put a smile on my face to see the results from Matchday 3 for Slavia Prague and Sparta Prague. Last season’s Czech champions SK Slavia Praha have struggled mightily thus far in the Europa League with 2-0 and 5-1 losses to Genoa and Lille respectively.
Going into Thursday’s match, history was against the Czech-based side as Valencia had never lost in six games against Czech sides and were unbeaten over 90 minutes in their last 14 UEFA club competition games. To be fair to Valencia they did dominate the latter stages of the match and looked likely to go on to win, especially after Slavia’s Hocine Ragued was sent off after receiving a second booking for a foul on Rubén Baraja. David Villa was poised to be the hero again off the bench and nearly produced from the free kick resulting from Ragued’s foul. He saw his curled effort crash off the upright and Valencia’s hopes of retaining top spot crashed soon after as Villa received a straight red card for kicking out at Benjamin Vomácka.
Cross-town rivals of Slavia, AC Sparta Praha defeated Romanian club CFR 1907 Cluj by a 2-0 score to climb up to second place in Group K. The win ended a six-year drought for Sparta, who had not recorded a home victory in a European club competition group-stage since beating Lazio in the Champions League on December 9, 2003. This was the first time that CFR and Sparta had met and Sparta’s only previous home game against Romanian opponents ended in a 5-1 defeat by FC Steaua Bucuresti in the first round of the 1988/89 European Champion Clubs’ Cup.
First-half goals from Juraj Kucka and Roman Hubník settled the contest and despite Cluj pressing the home side for long periods of the match, they were unable to find a way past goalkeeper Jaromír Blažek. Group K has become tighter with PSV top on 7 points and the other three clubs (Sparta, Cluj and FC København) all within a point of each other.