Europa League is slowly progressing towards the business end, as eight intriguing ties await the fans. Of the sixteen teams left in the competition, thirteen have tasted European success in the past, with six of them winning the UEFA Cup. Historically, the round of 16 has produced exciting matches in Europa League and there is little to suggest that it will be any different this time.
Braga v Liverpool
Under Kenny Dalglish, Liverpool have resurrected their season. Last weekend, they spanked bitter rivals Manchester United 3-1 at Anfield; the scoreline was perfectly justified as the Reds played some scintillating football. Liverpool has won UEFA Cup a record three times and might want to add another trophy to their impressive European cabinet. It will be interesting to see how much importance “King” Kenny places on Europa League, with Liverpool still having a shot at a top-4 finish in EPL. Luis Suarez is cup tied, while Fabio Aurelio will sit out for four weeks after tearing his hamstring.
This man knows how to win titles.
Liverpool’s opponent FC Braga made it to last 16 after a clinical home performance against Lech Poznan in first knock-out round. The Portuguese side has defeated English teams in last two encounters, and will fancy their chances in this match. Braga isn’t doing particularly well in domestic league – they are trailing FC Porto by a massive 31 points – so Europa League is their best chance of success this season.
Prediction: Braga 1-1 Liverpool
Villarreal v Bayer Leverkusen
The Yellow Submarines have played some of the best football in La Liga this season. Spurred by the prolific form of Giuseppe Rossi and Nilmar, it looks like Villarreal can regain its glory days of Pellegrini era. They knocked out Napoli after two keenly contested matches in round of 32. Last weekend they lost to Atletico Madrid 3-1 – a result that saw them drop four points behind Valencia in the fourth place. Juan Garrido has fashioned a miraculous turnaround after taking over last season, and he would want to see his team get back on winning track quickly.
Under Jupp Heynekes, former UCL winner with Real Madrid, Bayern Leverkusen has been one of the teams to beat in Europa league. Firmly perched on the second spot in Bundesliga table, Bayer is yet to lose a match in EL. In round of 32, the German side was one of the biggest winners, having garnered a 6-0 aggregate win over Metalist Kharkiv. This match can very well prove to be the clash of round of 16.
Prediction: Villarreal 2-1 Bayern Leverkusen
CSKA Moscow v FC Porto
Under Villas-Boas the 2002-03 UEFA Cup winners have been invincible in domestic league. Porto has won 20 out 22 league games so far and went unbeaten in EL group stages. The Brazilian strike pair of Hulk and Falcao has been unstoppable, with the latter leading the scoring charts in Europa League with 7 goals. Villas-Boas, an assistant to Jose Mourinho for a long time, is being touted as a worthy successor to the the “Special One”. The Porto juggernaut almost got derailed in round of 32 against a resolute Sevilla side. Trailing 0-2 from home leg, Sevilla won 1-0 in Portugal, almost scoring a second goal late in the game.
CSKA Moscow has a miserable record against Porto, having failed to score a single goal in the past four encounters. The Army Men finished second in Russian Premier League behind Zenit, and knocked out Greek side PAOK in round of 32. CSKA was stretched by PAOK in the second leg, and will have to improve their performance if they are to get a positive result against Porto.
Prediction: CSKA 0-1 Porto
PSV Eindhoven v Rangers
Eredivise leaders PSV has enjoyed a rich vein of goal scoring form this year. They average almost three goals per game in the domestic league, and have scored fifteen goals in eight Europa League matches. PSV’s 3-1 away win over Lille was one of the most emphatic results in last knock round. PSV hasn’t managed to defeat the Glasgow side in the last four encounters – a record they will want to change.
Few days ago, Rangers lost in the all important Old Firm derby, subsequently slipping behind Celtic in the league table. They do have two games in hand to make up the five-point deficit. Rangers was the last Scottish team to make an impact on the European scene, when they reached UEFA Cup final before losing to Sevilla. Scottish teams have been extremely ordinary in UCL/EL in last few seasons; a Rangers win in this tie seems very unlikely.
Prediction: PSV 2-0 Rangers
FC Twente v Zenit St. Petersburg
Under Steve McClaren, Twente won their first ever league title last season. Michel Peud’homme, the legendary Belgian goalkeeper, has meshed seamlessly with the team after MacClaren’s departure. Twente are placed second in Dutch table, just 3 points behind PSV. The Dutch club knocked out Rubin Kazan in the last round with a 4-2 aggregate win. After an impressive 2-0 away win, Twente went down 2-0 in their home match after 30 minutes. However, they clawed their way back with 2 goals, drawing the match in the end.
Big spenders Zenit has been unstoppable in Russia under Luciano Spaletti. This season they captured Russian League Cup as well as Super Cup while creating numerous records. Zenit’s form in European knock out games hasn’t been as ominous as their league form. The 2008/09 UEFA Cup winners were knocked out by Auxerre in UCL qualifiers. In Round of 32, Zenit lost the away leg against Young Boys despite taking a 1-0 lead. They faced an uphill task when the Swiss side scored an early goal in St Petersburg. Zenit’s quality prevailed in the end, as they hit back with 3 goals to claim a nervy 3-1 win.
Twente is an extremely well organized side, tough to beat at home. Zenit cant afford to make the same mistake as they did against Young Boys.
Prediction: Twente 2-1 Zenit
Ajax v Spartak Moscow
Ajax’s season hasn’t gone well so far; they lost Luis Suarez in the transfer window, and got knocked out in UCL group stages. The four-time European champions did play two solid matches in the Flemish derby against Anderlecht. Youngster Christian Eriksen was one of the top performers in a 5-1 aggregate victory. Since Martin Jol’s departure, Ajax are no longer the free scoring side they were last season. However, they do have the best defensive record in Eredivisie.
Ever since Valeri Karpin took over, Spartak Moscow has been one of the attractive teams in Russia. Purists have been delighted by their short passing attacking football. However, they have not been immune to a flaw in most attacking teams – conceding cheap goals. Spartak, one of the most successful sides in Russian football, has conceded 33 goals in 30 league matches last season, a reason behind their fourth place finish.
This match is a clash of contrasting styles and Spartak has a good chance of replicating the famous 3-1 win at Amsterdam in 1997/98 season.
Prediction: Ajax 2-2 Spartak
Dynamo Kiev v Manchester City
Dynamo, two time Cup winners Cup champion, have all but given up hopes on their domestic campaign. The team from Kiev was one of the biggest winners in round of 32. Their 7-1 aggregate win over Besiktas brought back memories of 1987/88 season, when they defeated the same club 8-0 in European Cup quarter final. Dynamo has been extremely tough to beat at home, having not lost a European match at the Lobanovsky stadium since December, 2009.
It is looking increasingly unlikely that City will win an all elusive EPL title this season.The Europa League and FA Cup are two options to end City’s excruciating 35 year wait for silverware. Their form in Europa league hasn’t been as good as their squad merits. Unheralded Greek side Aris held City’s star studded squad to a draw in first leg of round of 32. City did put out a flawless performance winning 3-0 in Manchester.
Prediction: Dynamo 2-1 Manchester City
Benfica v Paris St. Germain
Benfica was one of the most exciting teams in Europe last season. The won the Portuguese title without breaking a sweat. Jorge Jesus’ team has struggled to replicate that form this season after losing star players Di Maria and Ramires. Paraguayan striker Oscar Cardozo struck two goals in round of 16, as Benfica edged out Stuttgart 4-1 on aggregate. Five seasons back, they faced PSG at the same stage of UEFA Cup; PSG won 2-1 in Paris, while a late Simao penalty ensured a 3-1 victory for Benfica in the return leg.
Paris St. Germain barely made it past Belarus champions FC Bate in round of 32. Two away goals in first leg were sufficient enough to ensure progress for the Ligue-1 one team. Benfica has never lost a home game to French opposition – a record that won’t delight PSG. PSG did perform pretty well in group stages, topping which arguably was the toughest group in this year’s competition, which also included Sevilla and Borussia Dortmund.
Prediction: Benfica 2-0 PSG