A quick look at the teams involved in the knockout stages of the UEFA Europa League this season and you’d be forgiven for thinking this was a Champions League draw.
While the top tier of European soccer will rightly hog the spotlight in the days to come, the Europa League represents an intriguing sub-plot. And although the reputation of the tournament has been sullied in recent seasons, this trophy has been the catalyst for various sides going on achieve bigger and better things in campaigns to come.
This season, there’s the added incentive of UEFA Champions League soccer for the winners of the tournament too, meaning we should be treated to engrossing matches aplenty, starting with this week’s ties in the last-32 of the competition.
All times Eastern.
Trabzonspor vs Napoli, 1pm, FOX Soccer 2Go
Roma vs Feyenoord, 1pm, FOX Soccer 2Go
PSV vs Zenit, 1pm, FOX Soccer 2Go & ESPN Deportes
Aalberg vs Club Brugge, 1pm, FOX Soccer 2Go
Young Boys vs Everton, 1pm, FOX Sports 2 & FOX Soccer 2Go
Torino vs Athletic Club, 1pm, FOX Soccer 2Go
Wolfsburg vs Sporting, 1pm, FOX Soccer 2Go
Dnipro vs Olympiacos, 1pm, FOX Soccer 2Go
Anderlecht vs Dinamo Moskva, 3:05pm, FOX Soccer 2Go
Liverpool vs Besiktas, 3:05pm, FOX Sports 2, FOX Soccer 2Go & WatchESPN
Tottenham vs Fiorentina, 3:05pm, FOX Soccer 2Go
Celtic vs Inter Milan, 3:05pm, FOX Soccer 2Go
Guingamp vs Dynamo Kyiv, 3:05pm, FOX Soccer 2Go
Villarreal vs Salzburg, 3:05pm, FOX Soccer 2Go, WatchESPN
Ajax vs Legia, 3:05pm, FOX Soccer 2Go
Sevilla vs Monchengladbach, 3:05pm, FOX Soccer 2Go, WatchESPN
Note: Thanks to World Soccer Talk reader CTBlues, it’s important to note that DirecTV subscribers can watch PSV vs Zenit, Torino vs Athletic, and Wolfsburg vs Sporting on the UEFA channels in the 400’s channel range.
Previews of 5 stand-out matches
Here’s a look at 5 of the standout fixtures from the first round of knockout matches:
Sevilla vs. Borussia Moenchengladbach
Having won this particular competition three times in the last nine outings, it’d be fair to say that Sevilla are Europa League experts. Last season they got the better of Benfica in an engrossing final, but they’ll have to be at their very best if they’re to continue their run in this year’s competition when they take on Borussia Moenchengladbach.
Lucien Favre’s team are enjoying a magnificent season in the Bundesliga, sitting in third position in the table. They may not be free-scoring or overly fluent in their offensive forays, but Moenchengladbach are very difficult to beat and opposition that have earned the right to be taken seriously in this tournament.
Sevilla are also enjoying a fine campaign in their respective division. They’re well in the hunt for a Champions League spot along with Valencia and Villarreal, but this is a tournament that Unai Emery will definitely be taking very seriously indeed. The Andalusians won it back-to-back in 2006 and 2007, can they make it two in a row again with a win this year?
Tottenham Hotspur vs. Fiorentina
Mauricio Pochettino’s team seem to be hitting form at the perfect time and having made it to the final of League Cup already this year, the Tottenham fans will be hoping their side can excel in European Cup competition too. Fiorentina are formidable opponents, though.
La Viola may have lost Juan Cuadrado to Chelsea in the mid-season window but they’re a team that are very capable of making a sustained run in this competition. Players like Alessandro Diamanti, Matias Fernandez and Joaquin are all big threats at the sharp end of the pitch and in Borja Valero the Italian’s have one of European soccer’s most underrated playmakers.
With Harry Kane and Christian Eriksen purring for the Londoners, Spurs are a team who will give just as good as they get, however. Traditionally, they’re a side who have flourished in the cup competitions and this burgeoning young team will be desperate to notch a trophy to compliment their undeniable potential.
Celtic vs. Internazionale
This duo are iconic names in European soccer and we’ll surely be set for two thoroughly entertaining matches when Celtic and Inter lock horns. There’s some intriguing narrative to observe on the cusp of this contest too, as this match is a repeat of the 1967 European Cup final, when Jock Stein’s Lisbon Lions became the first British team ever to be crowned kings of the continent.
The Hoops aren’t quite as prominent a force in the game these days, but Parkhead remains a hugely ominous venue to visit. The Celtic fans are capable of creating an incomparably intimidating atmosphere for their opponents; with another Scottish League title looking a mere inevitability, those supporters will be desperate for the club to make an impression in Europe too.
You suspect they may well fancy their chances against a Nerrazzuri team who have seen better days. Roberto Mancini has failed to inspire this side to much improvement since taking over at the San Siro, but they still boast an array of dangerous players that’ll be hopeful of firing Inter past Celtic and into the last-16 of the competition.
Wolfsburg vs. Sporting Club
Sitting pretty in second place in the Bundesliga, Wolfsburg are enjoying a fine campaign. They may not be able to challenge the might of Bayern Munich for the German title, but a run in the Europa League would give this team something tangible to aim for come the season’s climax.
Sporting represent a dangerous draw for the likes of Kevin de Bruyne, Bas Dost et al however. The Portuguese outfit are riding high in the Liga Sagres and have their own array of attack-minded talent capable of causing major problems. On-loan Manchester United man Nani has been particularly impressive for them and has the class to unlock even the most stringent of defenses.
Wolfsburg have shown some vulnerabilities in this competition he could potentially exploit too. Everton did the double over the Germans in the previous round meaning they only finished second in the group; Lisbon represents a very difficult draw for them, but for neutrals, the two matches should be gripping encounters.
Liverpool vs. Besiktas
Brendan Rodgers’ Liverpool side were unable to preserve their spot in the latter stages of the Champions League despite the best efforts of Steven Gerrard and the Anfield crowd. But coming into this clash, they’re a team that are refocused, replenished and subsequently, are one of the big favorites to win this tournament.
Besiktas should also be considered as potential winners, however. Slaven Bilic has assembled a very capable group of players and they showcased in their group games against Tottenham that they’re capable of grinding out big results in front of their fervent supporters and on the road. In Demba Ba, they have rumbustious, ruthless centre-forward leading the line too.
Liverpool won this trophy in 2003 and will be desperate to do so once again. While the Reds didn’t really take this tournament completely seriously in their previous outings, with Champions League soccer on offer for the winners there is a major incentive for them. That and allowing Gerrard to lift one more piece of silverware in the iconic red jersey.
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