February 14, 2013 by jstevenson0804
After an entertaining restart to the Champions League, now it is the turn of the Europa League to get back under way. The draw has thrown up many interesting, if not unfair, matches and there will no doubt be a few shocks along the way. Many critics have questioned the validity of the Europa League with many claims of it being a rather unnecessary and unloved competition. While some of this may be true, certainly for bigger teams with other priorities, there is still the potential for a lot of high quality football. So let’s take a look at what the last 32 has to offer us.
ZENIT ST PETERSBURG VS LIVERPOOL
This is just one of the aforementioned exciting yet unfair ties. How can it be that group winners of the first round can meet a relegated Champions League club? Nevertheless, it is definitely a mouth-watering tie. Zenit are just one of many big-spending Russian clubs and remain in the hunt for the national title. Having spent extravagantly in the summer the fans will expect a good Europa run and they could well go a long way. Liverpool on the other hand still represent a club of inconsistency. Great draws against Manchester City and Arsenal were in the midst of defeats to Oldham and West Brom. So in that respect good results come against the big clubs, so there is hope. Unfortunately, having played Monday night and set to play on Sunday as well, this tie could be one step too far for a fairly light squad, with many players having already shown fatigue throughout the season.
ANZHI VS HANNOVER
Runners up to Liverpool in the group stage, Russia’s biggest spenders will fancy their chances in this tie. With the massive signing of Borges Willian from Ukraine, Anzhi are now starting to look the part. Samuel Eto’o offers the prospect of goals and, like Zenit, they are in the hunt for the Russian title. The money spent has certainly raised eyebrows even if performances have not, but the Russians will enter this tie as favourites. Hannover has done reasonably well in the Bundesliga with a steady ninth place at the moment, although Europe has reaped the greatest rewards. Unbeaten in the group stage, they will feel confident but it will be difficult to out-muscle the Russians, although they do have the potential for a shock.
BATE BORISOV VS FENERBAHCE
Belarus’ perennial champions have always flattered to deceive in Europe. A surprise win over Bayern Munich in the Champions League could not be backed up with other results to secure qualification. So once again it will be another Europa League campaign and they do stand a reasonable chance against Fenerbahce. The Turkish giants, though will also fancy their chances. Trailing Galatasaray in the league the Europa League will be their best bet of a major trophy this season. Having won their group they can feel aggrieved to be drawn against a Champions League dropout but will be hopeful they can progress to the next round.
LEVANTE VS OLYMPIAKOS
Having progressed from a group containing Steve McLaren’s Twente, Levante can be pleased with their European campaign so far. Ninth in the league and four defeats in five will have dented their confidence but they will no doubt be up for the challenge that awaits them. Olympiakos were unfortunate not to progress from their Champions League in arguably what was a fairly easy group to get through. Nevertheless, with the Greek title seemingly theirs already they will surely expect to dispose of Levante’s challenge and move on to the next stage.
DYANMO KIEV VS BORDEAUX
Another Champions League dropout, Kiev will be looking at the Europa League to make their season worthwhile. Domestically they have trailed in the wake of Shakhtar’s unbelievable form since day one and will have to settle for a European adventure. While Bordeaux are not always considered a top French team they did well in the group stage and comfortably won the group containing Newcastle. Realistically though, one would expect Dynamo to have just that little something extra to see off the French team, who currently lie seventh in the table and remain in search of European football for next season.
BAYER LEVERKUSEN VS BENFICA
Leverkusen has enjoyed a much-improved season in 2012-2013 and will be thoroughly looking forward to this anticipated tie. Currently in third in the Bundesliga and comfortably in a Champions League position for next season, they also enjoyed a strong group stage. 13 points were not quite enough to win their group but they came very close and stand a good chance at progression. Benfica, similarly, are having a great season. Level on points with Porto the title will not be decided until the last few games. Although perhaps they will have felt they should have done better in the Champions League it was not a terrible performance and they could certainly do well in the Europa League. This tie may rest on Benfica’s desire to do well in Europe, although in recent seasons Portuguese teams have enjoyed very successful campaigns.
AJAX VS STEAU BUCHAREST
Ajax will be relatively satisfied with being in the Europa League. They survived the ‘group of death’ in the Champions League and saw off Manchester City to make the drop into the Europa League. They are still in the hunt for the Eredivisie title after defending it last season, but even more exciting is the prodigious talent of Danish teenager Viktor Fischer who has set the league alight. Steau Bucharest has enjoyed a return to form after more than five seasons without a league title. Currently atop the Romanian league by 10 points they look set to rectify their recent poor run. Having won their Europa League group they will be full of confidence, although the Dutch champions will provide a very stern test and will most likely start as favourites.
SPARTA PRAGUE VS CHELSEA
Sparta progressed from the group stage without every really doing a great deal and will probably struggle against the outgoing Champions League winners. Domestically, they are in a three-way tussle for the title and that will probably take priority over any European success. Chelsea, on the other hand, will be looking to Europe to restore some pride to their season. Breaking records for the wrong reasons and poor league form will see Chelsea aim to win Europe’s secondary competition to compensate for domestic woes. In spite of on-off form they certainly have the players capable of winning the competition.
NAPOLI VS VIKTORIA PLZEN
One of Italy’s more exciting teams Napoli will be aiming for continental success. In Serie A they lie just five points behind defending champions Juventus and so this may distract from the Europa battles. However, the goals of Edinson Cavani, top scorer in the group stage, will prove pivotal and he is capable of performing in both competitions. Viktoria Plzen currently lead the three-way tussle for the Czech title and this will more than likely take priority over the Europa League. They will certainly give it a go against Napoli but surely will not be able to pull off a shock, even though they did manage to win their group ahead of defending champions Athletico Madrid.
That concludes Part 1 of the Last 32 preview. There are some interesting teams still remaining and the potential for a lot of high-quality football. Hopefully the potential will be realised and we all get some entertaining matches to quash some of the critics’ complaints. Stay tuned for Part 2 when the remaining matches are previewed, and trust me, there are some great teams still to come.