Existing as it does in the shadow of the Champions League, many regard the Europa League as a mere sideshow and, for fans of the competing clubs, even an irritation.
Certainly, the perception of it in the UK is as such, to the point that it often comes as a surprise when managers take it seriously! However, it is always an exciting and open competition, with no team retaining their crown since 1986, when Real Madrid managed consecutive successes in the then UEFA Cup.
Atletico Madrid won it in 2010 and again last year, but their elimination at the hands of Rubin Kazan leaves the 2013 race wide open, with numerous clubs competing for the victory laurels.
There are some familiar faces in the running. Three-time winners Inter have a tough tie lined up against Tottenham next round, and a talented Benfica side have one eye on their first Europa League trophy as well. More excitingly, previously unfancied sides such as Steaua Bucharest and Czech champions Viktoria Plzen have enjoyed great success this year and will be hoping to extend their strong runs yet further.
The round of 32 saw some foregone conclusions; Inter downed Cluj, and Chelsea edged past Sparta Prague. It saw some more unexpected results as well. Steaua overturned a two-goal deficit to progress past Ajax, aided by a stunner from centre-back Vlad Chiriches, and Czech league leaders Viktoria Plzen put five unanswered goals past Napoli across their two ties.
Newcastle and Tottenham both enjoyed slices of fortune in going past Metalist and Lyon respectively, although Liverpool were not so lucky. Their spirited, Suarez-inspired fightback against Zenit took them to 3-3, only to exit the competition on away goals.
Benfica, Stuttgart, Lazio, Basel, Bordeaux and Spanish surprise package Levante, who effected a surprisingly comprehensive 4-0 reverse over their two legs against Olympiakos, complete the roster of teams entering the next round.
Constraints of space dictate the focus being on only four matches from this round, three of which involve English teams, perhaps unavoidable given the dominant presence of both English and Russian teams.
Spurs v Inter
Spurs go into their tie against Inter with morale sky-high after outplaying and defeating their local rivals Arsenal on Sunday. Goals from Gareth Bale and Aaron Lennon showcased the terrifying speed Spurs have up front.
Bale, who famously tore Inter to pieces in 2010, has only got better (twelve goals in his last eleven games), and Spurs’ defence, too, seems impressive these days. Belgian defender Jan Vertonghen, already a fan favourite for rejecting Arsenal’s advances, is looking imperious at the back. French international Hugo Lloris is arguably the Premier League’s form goalkeeper.
By contrast, last weekend, Inter only sneaked past Catania with an injury-time Rodrigo Palacio goal, and may be further hampered by the absence of star man, the Colombian Fredy Guarin.
Inter lack pace at the back, but that said their defence is vastly experienced and Slovenian goalkeeper Samir Handanovic is one of the best in the business. They will also not be as obliging as Arsenal in playing a high line, so if they can blunt Spurs’ attacks they may hope to return to Milan in credit.
Anzhi Makhachkala v Newcastle
Newcastle are in sorry league form this year after a surprisingly successful 2011/12. With their 14th league defeat of the season coming at the weekend to Capital One Cup winners Swansea, they sit in 15th place on just 30 points – and are perhaps lucky that there are one or two very poor teams in the division this year.
Last year’s golden boy Papiss Cisse scored a wonder-goal a fortnight ago but has been goal-shy this term. ‘Le Toon’s’ French contingent has real talent though, which may tell on the bigger stage against up-and-coming powerhouse, Russia’s Anzhi Makhachkala.
Anzhi are rarely mentioned in Britain outside of transfer-talk articles, but were quietly impressive in taking down Hannover 96, themselves no slouches, last round.
Featuring an intimidating combination of experience and talent – Cameroon’s Samuel Eto’o plays alongside several other big money names including Yuri Zhirkov and Lassana Diarra. Anzhi will probably prove a test too far for a struggling Newcastle, who will badly miss their captain Fabricio Coloccini.
Steaua Bucharest v Chelsea
Put-upon Chelsea (‘interim’ – Ed) manager Rafael Benitez would clearly love a trophy this year.
With the league probably out of sight he may eye the Europa League as a way to legitimise his troubled tenure at the club. Chelsea have some real talent at the club; with a potential attacking trident of Mata, Hazard and Oscar, it would be easy to say they should be happy having drawn Steaua.
However, they were very unimpressive in the last round, requiring no little luck to pass Sparta Prague. Steaua will be itching to add another major scalp to that of Ajax, whom they turned over emphatically in the last round.
Winger Cristian Tanase is good with the ball at his feet but Cesar Azpilicueta, pencilled in as his opposite man on the night, is one of Chelsea’s standout performers this season. It would probably be too much for Steaua to expect their two goalscoring defenders to repeat their heroics. If their strikers do not come to the party, Chelsea’s defence will have a comparatively relaxed night.
Benfica v Bordeaux
Lastly, it is worth considering the Benfica-Bordeaux tie. Portuguese football is not the best observed in Britain but league leaders Benfica’s side, having taken 13 points from their last 5 matches, is very impressive and it would be no surprise to me were they to go all the way.
Paraguayan striker Oscar Cardozo is a monster, immensely physical and with a cannon of a left foot; his fellow front-man Lima is outplaying him, with 12 in 17 games.
Defender Ezequiel Garay is a long-term target for Manchester United, and ex-Chelsea youngster Nemanja Matic is earning rave reviews for his cultutred midfield performances, including a man-of-the-match performance against Porto, the highlight of which was a searing strike from outside the area.
Bordeaux, by contrast, are not enjoying the best of times and currently sit 10th in Ligue 1.
The Europa League may be considered the Champions League’s poor relation, but victory will be important to every team on Thursday night.
Underperforming ‘big’ teams will seek to rescue their seasons, rising stars will look to announce their arrival as serious contenders on the continental stage and underrated sides will be keen to pick up treasured scalps. In short, anything could happen – Thursday’s round of matches is set to be exciting indeed.
Matt Mackenzie is a guest contributor to Just Football. Follow him on Twitter @oagmackenzie.