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)

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.

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