The Europa League is back!

The return of European football gets most fans excited about the Champions League. With the likes of Real Madrid, Barcelona, Bayern, PSG and others involved, it is of course natural that Europe’s secondary club competition gets overlooked. However, this writer always looks forward to the Europa League knockout competition. Jurgen Klopp recently called the tournament a “Mini-Champions League”. Looking at the calibre of the remaining teams and some of the fixtures in the round of 32, his suggestion is not far off the mark. Some of these matches could quite conceivably be seen in next season’s Champions League, while others are ties between some great historic clubs.

Here are some ties that should the whet the appetite for all football fans:

Anderlecht (3rd in Belgian Jupiler League) vs Olympiakos (1st in Greek Super League)

Borussia Dortmund (2nd in Bundesliga) vs Porto (3rd in Portuguese Liga)

Fiorentina (3rd in Serie A) vs Tottenham (2nd in Barclays Premier League)

Saint-Étienne (4th in Ligue 1) vs Basel (1st in Swiss Super League)

Villarreal (4th in La Liga) vs Napoli (2nd in Serie A)

Galatasaray (5th in Turkish Super Lig) vs Lazio (7th in Serie A)

Marseille (11th in Ligue 1) vs Athletic Bilbao (7th in La Liga)

Shakhtar Donetsk (1st in Ukrainian Premier League) vs Schalke 04 (5th in Bundesliga)

Sporting Lisbon (1st in Portuguese Liga) vs Bayer Leverkusen (3rd in Bundesliga)

Marseille 1 Paris Saint-Germain 2

Another cracking Le Classique between these two great rivals. The match between Marseille and Paris Saint-Germain followed the template of the meeting at the Parc des Princes earlier in the season, which in turn was very similar to the two encounters last season.

Marseille were relentless throughout the match, pressing incessantly and bypassing PSG’s much-vaunted midfield at will. Lassana Diarra was the standout player in midfield, with 87 touches of the ball, 86 % passing accuracy with his 67 passes and four tackles. Diarra’s form this season makes him a shoo-in for the French national team at this summer’s Euro. A special mention also goes to Remy Cabella, who had an outstanding game. Cabella scored Marseille’s equalizer after an excellent run and arguably should have had a couple of assists but his teammates failed to finish the chances he created.

For all of Marseille’s excellence though, they were once again caught out by the quality of the champions on the break. PSG had three shots on target and scored twice. Ultimately the superior individual quality of Les Parisiens told. Zlatan Ibrahimovic scored in Le Classique once again and then provided the assist for Angel di Maria to rifle in a superb finish on the break. While Ibra and di Maria will take most of the plaudits, credit also has to go Thiago Silva and Serge Aurier who made several excellent tackles and last-ditch clearances to keep PSG in the game when Marseille were overrunning the midfield.

While PSG were second best for most of the match, Laurent Blanc may feel that such an intense and difficult match was ideal preparation for the resumption of the team’s Champions League campaign. This level of football is what PSG are going to have to overcome to go deep on the continent (although many would say this season’s iteration of Chelsea are not much better than Ligue 1’s mid table sides) and coming through such an intense clash with a win bodes well for the capital club.

Meanwhile Marseille themselves may be better off making a good fist of their Europa League campaign. A team of their talent should be able to make up the five-point gap to third, but the consistency simply isn’t there, especially since they can’t buy a win at home. The last time Michel’s men took three points at the Velodrome was in October, a staggering and unacceptable fact for a team of Marseille’s stature. Despite playing some of the most exciting football in the country, another season of underachievement beckons for L’OM.

Roma 2 Sampdoria 1

Roma continued their mini-revival under the auspices of Luciano Spalletti, winning their third consecutive game in Serie A. What looked like a routine home win turned into a nervy 2-1 win over Sampdoria. With Fiorentina and Inter both stuttering, the Giallorossi have stormed back into contention for the last Champions League spot on the back of nine points in their last three games.

Starting with the positives, Spalletti’s men really should have buried the game in the first half. There was some fabulous interplay between Mohamed Salah and the pair of new signings, Diego Perotti and Stephan El Shaarawy. At least three clear chances were wasted before Alessandro Florenzi grabbed the opener on the stroke of half time. Perotti then scored an excellent second early in the second half. In stead of seeing the game out, Roma then suffered their traditional bout of nerves. Sampdoria got one goal back courtesy of a Miralem Pjanic deflection and then the home side’s midfield lost the plot completely. The visitors piled the pressure and only a trio of brilliant saves by Wojciech Szczesny ensured the capital side took the three points.

While Roma are gaining some sense of momentum, la Samp remain mired in the relegation battle. Vincenzo Montella’s men seem to play at a high level for about 40 minutes in each match, but their poor phases of play are being ruthlessly punished by their opponents. Montella has to get the team focused from kickoff to the final whistle. It may be easy to dismiss their relegation fears on the basis of the team being too good, but a rut at this stage of the season can be irreversible. It is only the inadequacies of Carpi, Frosinone and Hellas Verona that separate Sampdoria from the relegation zone. There is undisputed firepower in the team with Luis Muriel, but Montella needs to tighten up at the back immediately so that Sampdoria can at least salvage a lower mid-table finish. If not, it’s going to be hard to see Montella managing at the Marassi past the end of the season.

Celta Vigo 1 Sevilla 1

The second game in this week’s triple-header between Celta Vigo and Sevilla finished in a thrilling 1-1 draw. How Sevilla managed to escape with a draw is anyone’s guess. The home side battered their opponents especially since Federico Fazio’s sending off in the 25th minute, but their poor finishing combined with some heroic last-ditch defending from the visitors meant only one point in stead of three.

In the grand scheme of things, a point didn’t do much for either team. Sevilla stretched their unbeaten streak in the league to five games, however they are yet to have an away win this season. Such poor returns on the road make it unlikely for Unai Emery’s men to make up the eight-point deficit to Villarreal in the last Champions League spot.

Meanwhile, Celta are outside the European spots on the basis of goal difference and their limited squad makes it difficult to see them overtaking either Sevilla or Athletic Bilbao. However, a season of promise can still finish well. If Claudio Beauvue’s finish was anything to go by, the Galician team might just have one of the most exciting attacking trios in the league once Nolito returns to the playing eleven. Nolito, Beauvue and the underrated Iago Aspas can be a handful against most defences in the league.

Attention now turns to the final instalment of this trilogy on Thursday. Sevilla should easily navigate the Copa Del Rey semifinal after their 4-0 win at home in the first leg. Nevertheless, with the non-stop attacking football we have seen in the two matches between these teams so far and with a Celta Vigo side with nothing to lose, hopes are we’ll see another crazy end-to-end game in the second leg.

Bordeaux 1 Saint-Étienne 4

An open and entertaining match between two Ligue 1 teams harbouring hopes of European qualification. At the end of the match only Saint-Étienne remain in contention after an emphatic 4-1 win away to Bordeaux.

Christophe Galtier’s men have been playing some excellent football since the turn of the year.  Three of their last five matches have now included a home win over Lyon and away wins at Rennes and Bordeaux. Their only loss in that period was a hard-fought reversal against PSG. Les Verts are now building momentum. Behind Nice only on goal difference, they welcome Monaco next weekend full of confidence. There are many positive signs that Galtier can look to for that crucial clash.

Always solid at the back, ASSE are now displaying greater verve in the final third, consequently scoring more goals.Alexander Søderlund is proving to be a hit since arriving in January. Despite missing a penalty to finish the game in the first half, the Norwegian scored another crucial goal after getting off the mark against Lyon. The real star of the show however, was debutant Oussama Tannane. The 21-year old Moroccan dovetailed beautifully with Søderlund, Benjamin Corgnet and Vincent Pajot while giving Diego Contento and Cedric Yambéré several nosebleeds on the left side of Bordeaux’s defence. A goal and an assist were just rewards for an enterprising display and the youngster may have forced himself into Galtier’s first eleven ahead of the infuriating Jean-Christophe Bahebeck.

Willy Sagnol will have been left really disappointed by this defeat. Girondins were on a seven-match unbeaten run at the Stade Matmut-Atlantique and fans were beginning to believe that a late run for European qualification was on the cards. However, after conceding seven goals in their last two games, one wonders if this is a watershed moment in Bordeaux’s season. Two of their best players in Wahbi Khazri and Henri Saivet left in January and the new recruits have not had a promising start. Mathieu Debuchy demonstrated a level of defensive negligence that explains why he had fallen far down the pecking order at Arsenal. While Mauro Arambarri and Malcom gave decent accounts of themselves, there was simply too much tactical indiscipline all over the park. After a promising first season in management, Sagnol’s magic seems to be fading and it’s difficult to see how can he salvage anything from what is quickly becoming a very disappointing season for Bordeaux.

Chelsea 1 Manchester United 1

Lots of great post-match analysis all over the web on this match. An interesting point by Daniel Storey in his piece on Football365.

Game on, you’d have thought, yet there never seemed to be any tension brewing in the fixture. After the vibrancy of Leicester on Saturday came the grim realisation of a Chelsea vs Manchester United fixture. This used to be a glamour fixture.

My opinion is that amongst the big games in the Premier League, battles between these two have almost always been underwhelming. Even at the peak of Sir Alex Ferguson and Jose Mourinho’s teams, matches between Manchester United and Chelsea have left a lot to be desired for the neutral. The Champions League final, though tense, was hardly inspiring, while several title deciders between these two have been affairs of grit and physicality rather than finesse and creativity. The two exceptions to this were during André Villas-Boas’ ill-fated reign at Stamford Bridge.

This match was hardly any different from the usual drudgery served up in this rivalry. Each team had phases of ascendancy, but the only players who stood out were the two goalkeepers. This of course is not to suggest that there were a non-stop barrage of shots.

In fact, the only memory of this game is most likely going to be a sad one. Kurt Zouma’s howls of pain after an unfortunate landing were very hard to hear and the replays were sickening to see. At the time of writing, there is no official diagnosis, but it is more than likely that the young Frenchman’s season is over, and along with it a chance to appear at Euro 2016 on home soil. Heart breaking indeed.

Athletic Bilbao 0 Villarreal 0

The sixth place team in La Liga hosting the fourth place team. One expected fireworks. In stead we got an anti-climax of a game. The onus was on Athletic to take the game to Villarreal. The home side needed a win to make the race for the last Champions League spot somewhat interesting. In stead, after this stalemate, Villarreal have a 10-point lead over Bilbao with 15 games remaining. In a league where away wins are still difficult, that is a substantial gap.

The Yellow Submarines will be happy with the point. Marcelino Garcia Toral’s men seemed to have learnt some important lessons from last season. They were well in the mix for fourth spot last season, but some soft defeats derailed that bid. This season, Villarreal may not score much, but they have certainly become tougher to beat, both, at home and on the road. The only concern that Garcia Toral will have is the injury to Mateo Musacchio. With Eric Bailly also currently sidelined, Villarreal will hope that their Argentine centre back is not seriously hurt. If most of the first team manages to stay fit, Villarreal should navigate their remaining fixtures while retaining that all-important fourth spot.

Bayer Leverkusen 0 Bayern Munich 0

What should have been the marquee game of the Bundesliga weekend turned out to be anything but. The pre-match talk was focused on how Pep Guardiola’s decision to join Manchester City next season impacted Bayern’s players. There were rumours of player dissent and all sorts of disharmony within the squad.

How much of this is true is hard to say, but looking at things on the pitch, it was the most disjointed that Bayern have looked in a while. Despite having Douglas Costa, Arjen Robben and Kingsley Coman on the pitch, Bayern didn’t create much. The only time they looked like scoring was when Thomas Müller came on in the second half, but the German international blazed over two presentable chances. Meanwhile, injuries and suspensions continue to dog Bayern as Xabi Alonso was sent off after two yellow cards.

With a red-hot Javier Hernandez, one would have expected Leverkusen to cause Bayern serious problems. However, the home side looked liked they didn’t really believe they could win. While Ömer Toprak was excellent in defence, Roger Schmidt’s much-vaunted attacking quartet of Hernandez, Stefan Kießling, Hakan Calhanoglu and Karim Bellarabi simply failed to sparkle on the big night.

All said and done, a point for each side isn’t the worst result. Yes, Bayern are expected to win every game in the league, but a point away to a Champions League side is still an acceptable result. Conversely, Leverkusen will look at any point taken from Bayern as a bonus. They are still alive in the race for the top four and a draw keeps their recent momentum in tact.

Southampton 1 West Ham 0

Southampton were deserved winners in this clash of upwardly mobile teams. In simple terms, Saints were the better team, while the Hammers were quite poor. The visitors never really got into their stride, even when they were playing against ten men for more than half an hour. Southampton are now only two points behind West Ham, who themselves are just two behind Manchester United. An argument could be made that both teams have actually played better football than the Red Devils this season.

The most interesting thing that struck me in this game is the aptitude of both managers. Southampton were in a serious rut until the middle of January. Since then they have won four and drawn one of their last five league games. The catalyst for this has been Ronald Koeman’s decision to switch to a back three. Coinciding with the change in formation has been the return of Fraser Forster between the sticks. Saints haven’t conceded a goal in this run. It is always good to see a manager find solutions with tactics rather than relying solely on the transfer market to solve problems in the middle of the season.

In the opposite dugout, it was interesting to see that Slaven Bilic tried to match Koeman’s formation. This was a brave — some may even say unnecessary — decision. West Ham haven’t played three at the back this season and to do it against opponents in fine form was very risky. This showed in the first half an hour as Southampton ran riot. However, even though it backfired, I find myself applauding Bilic’s decision. Here is a manager who actually put some thought into the game and in stead of being obstinate in his style of play, prepared for an opponent that had a unique formation. That it didn’t come off should not be a slight against Bilic. The execution failed this time around, but experience suggests that more often than not, such proactive tactical thinking breeds positive results.

There is justifiable excitement about the possibility of Pep Guardiola, Jose Mourinho and Jurgen Klopp managing in the Premier League next season. However, if mid table clubs sign managers with the fortitude and tactical flexibility of Koeman and Bilic, the quality of the league can only be further enhanced.

Angers 0 Lyon 3

The result of this game was never in doubt once Thomas Mangani was sent off in the 16th minute. For the first time this season, Lyon have strung two dominant wins in a row. Winning 3-0 against both Bordeaux and Lyon puts Bruno Genesio’s men right back in contention for Champions League qualification.

Such is the seesaw nature of the Ligue 1 chasing pack that these two wins have pushed Lyon up from 10th in the table to just a point behind their vanquished opponents, with Nice and Saint-Étienne only three points ahead. Of course, critics will say that Lyon should really have been comfortable in second or third considering their exploits last season and the quality of their squad. A whole host of issues from injuries to differences within the squad resulted in a depressing first half of the season.

However, there are signs that things are starting to click for last season’s runners up. Mathieu Valbuena is finally showing the form that made him such a star in Ligue 1 when he was at Marseille. While the defence still looks vulnerable, they are now playing with more calmness and authority. Significantly, the young stars who broke out in the last campaign are now recovering their mojo. Corentin Tolisso dominated the game in midfield, orchestrating some beautiful moves and capping his fine display with Lyon’s third goal. Meanwhile Rachid Ghezzal continues to improve with each passing game. The young Algerian is filling the void left by Nabil Fekir’s injury and if he continues his progression then Genesio will have quite the selection dilemma when all his attacking players are fit. With most of their toughest fixtures out of the way, Lyon should now, at the very least capture third spot.

On the other hand, Angers’ fine start to the season is catching up to them. A tough run of fixtures since January has seen three defeats in five matches. Angers entered the new year with only nine goals conceded, but that figure has now ratcheted up to 23. It is a testament to their fine start that they still have the third best defence in the league. However, some indiscipline is costing Stéphane Moulin’s men. Moulin’s organized approach requires all the players to sing from the same hymn sheet, but it is not a system that can work with ten men.

It shouldn’t be forgotten that survival alone would have constituted a successful season for Angers. European qualification always seem fanciful, however there is no reason why Angers shouldn’t finish in the top ten. If Moulin can get his players to regain their composure, this tough spell can be ridden out. There are plenty of points to be won for Angers to finish comfortably in mid table.

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