UEFA’S secondary European club competition, the Europa League, formerly the UEFA Cup, is seen by many in Britain as unimportant. The media portrays it as a “Mickey Mouse” tournament, so in turn the fans, and now certain clubs, treat it as such, seeing it as an unwelcome distraction in the midst of more important domestic competitions. Fortunately, the rest of Europe think differently, and treat it with the respect and importance that it deserves. This year’s Europa League has now reached the quarter-final stage, and Thursday evening produced some fantastic first-leg matches, as good at least, as anything that this season’s Champions’ League has thrown-up. Here is a brief summary of the action.
After defeating Manchester United home and away in the last sixteen, running out 5-3 aggregate winners, Basque club, Athletic Bilbao, travelled to Gelsenkirchen to take on, highly fancied German outfit, Schalke 04. The draw had provided some tasty match-ups but, on paper, this one certainly looked like being the tie of the round, and the first-leg did not disappoint, treating the capacity crowd to one of the greatest games of football that they’re ever likely to witness.
Schalke have had a decent Bundesliga season, currently sitting fourth, and their home form in particular has been very impressive, both in the league and in Europe. Dutch striker Klaas Jan Huntelaar is the Europa League top scorer this season with 10 goals, including a hat-trick in each of the previous two home-ties. Marcelo Bielsa’s Athletic, famed for their counter-attacking flair, have had a strong La Liga campaign, although they’ve just slipped a little of late, their form in Europe has been superb, and many have tipped them to go all the way in this competition.
After a blistering opening to the game which saw both sides, particularly the hosts, looking to take the initiative with an early goal, the break-through came on twenty minutes. Susaeta’s scuffed effort from De Marcos’ cross was spilled poorly by Timo Hildebraand, the German keeper then proceeded to flap around on the ground like a beached whale, while Llorente gathered the ball and poked home from eight yards to give the Basques a priceless away goal.
Just thirty seconds later, Schalke captain, Raul Gonzales scored his 74th goal in UEFA competition, when he stole in at the near post to put in Uchida’s cross. It remained level until half-time, although quite how it did is anybody’s guess. The hosts ratcheted up the pressure and created several great chance to go in front; Raul fluffed his lines when presented with a similar type of chance on the opposite side, Huntelaar came close, and Papadopoulos, the young Greek centre-half and candidate for man of the match, headed powerfully over the bar from Farfan’s free-kick.
Schalke replaced Hildebraand with, fourth choice keeper, Schober at the interval, and the home team came out determined to make their dominance count. Huntelaar had a goal correctly ruled out for offside in the 51st minute, but minutes later the Germans had the lead. Raul’s attempted pass to Huntelaar was stabbed away, but the Spaniard had continued his run, and as the ball dropped, he smashed a glorious left foot volley from twenty yards, across Iraizoz, and into the far corner.
Schalke’s control of the game continued, and Christian Fuchs’ thunderous effort was brilliantly kept out down low by Iraizoz, before Raul’s cheeky chip floated just wide; shortly afterwards Papadopoulos rose well in the area again, but his back-header dropped inches wide. Athletic were not finished though, far from it, and in the 72nd minute they caught the home side with a sucker punch; Llorente stealing in at the near post to head home Gomez’s corner. The goal gave the visitors renewed belief and impetus, and less than ten minutes later it was 2-3; a typically swift counter attack, saw De Marcos roll the ball home after Susaeta’s shot had been too hot for Schober to handle.
A frantic final ten minutes saw the home side desperately pushing forward to get back on terms; Huntelaar thumped the post with a blistering twenty yard volley, before Raul had another effort saved by Iraizoz. It would be the Basques, however, who would have the last word, when, in the final minute of injury time, a mistake in midfield allowed Susaeta to break free down the right. The Schalke defence, gaping with holes by this point, couldn’t deal with his pace, and when he cut the ball back for Munian, the youngster made no mistake, smashing the ball into the top corner, with the final kick of the match.
2-4 the score at the end of a wonderful, pulsating game, a match that would have graced the Champions’ League; Schalke players stood on in disbelief at the final whistle, neither able to comprehend the score-line, nor the manner of the defeat. Athletic Bilbao and Bielsa take the plaudits, and it looks almost certain that they will progress to the semi-finals.
Elsewhere, Athletico Madrid were wasteful in front of goal, but still managed to come out 2-1 winners against Hannover 96. The home side took the lead on nine minutes; Falcao rising to meet Gabi’s free-kick, but then proceeded to fluff a host of chances, before Diouf levelled things up from close range just before half-time. Athletico missed more chances in the second-half, before Courtois produced a fantastic save, from a point-blank shot by Diouf, to stop the Germans taking the lead. With the clock ticking down, second-half substitute Eduardo Salvio, scored a magnificent twenty-yard curler, to give the Spaniards an advantage to take into the second-leg, however, the tie remains in the balance.
Sporting Lisbon and AZ Alkmaar both won the home legs of their ties 2-1, defeating Metalist Kharkiv and Valencia respectively. Goals for Marat Izmailov and Emiliano Insua put the Portuguese 2-0 up, before a Cleiton Xavier penalty, in the last minute, gave the Ukrainians that all important away goal. Australian, Brett Holman, put AZ 1-0 up with a sublime volley from a corner just before half-time, very much against the run of play. Mehmet Topal equalised with a textbook header, back across the keeper, early in the second-half, before Holman turned provider, setting up Maarten Martens, who smashed home from twelve yards, twelve minutes from time. Both ties are still very much in the balance, with the second-legs to come next week.
Bilbao Image by Â·fotosteronaÂ·
Sporting Image by rtppt