UEFA Europa League Round of 16 week review

In the Europa League first leg of the Round of 16, we had a couple of interesting matches and a few surprises, to match the ones we had in the Champions League this week.

Sevilla 2-2 Slavia Prague

This was undoubtedly one of the biggest, if not the biggest surprise, in the entire matchday. Of course, Sevilla had a downfall recently, their struggles with form seeing them out of the Champions League places into the 6th, which saw loses with Huesca, Villareal, Celta Vigo, Barcelona and a draw with Eibar. Of course, Slavia Prague recorded some wins with Bordeaux and Zenit Saint Petersburg in the group stages, and eliminated Genk in the round of 32, but frankly nothing could have foreseen yesterday’s outcome.

Sevilla only needed 25 seconds to pull ahead with a header by Ben Yedder. The Czechs replied in the 25th minute, equalising with a goal by Miroslav Stoch. 3 minutes later, El Haddadi provided an assist for Ever Banega’s goal and Sevilla was leading again, 2-1. Slavia didn’t give in, and in the 39th minute, during one of their counters, the ball hit Alex Kral in the shoulder and went through Tomas Vaclik’s goalpost (the irony makes Sevilla’s keeper being Czech and havin played for Slavia’s deadly rival, Sparta Prague, between 2012 and 2014) and closing the score to a 2-2 draw.

Now, Slavia has a few chances of qualification, since the second leg is at Prague, and Sevilla’s known for it’s bad form in away games. I wouldn’t rule out a Sevilla qualification, but it will be quite a difficult job after yesterday’s performance.

Rennes 3-1 Arsenal

The French championship is one of the most unpredictable, and the reason I wouldn’t count Ligue 1 as a top league is the way some teams can get Champions League or Europa League places one season and battle relegation the next. Precisely the reason Paris Saint-Germain was able to ensure a domination in France once they become Qatar’s football project in Europe. Few teams like Lyon, Monaco and Marseille, have maintained some level of consistent relevance in this championship. And that’s why an average French team beating one of England’s top clubs is indeed one of the biggest surprises in this round.

Especially since, in this match, Arsenal took the lead early in this game with a strike by Alex Iwobi. However, the first-half dismissal of Sokratis Papastathopoulos left Unai Emery’s side swimming against a red tide in Rennes, forced to cling on in vain hope that the damage would not get even worse. Benjamin Bourigeaud’s phenomenal strike, lasered into the top corner barely seconds after Sokratis had left the pitch, changed the dynamic of this last-16 encounter, setting the score 1-1 at half-time.

It was an own goal of considerable misfortune, the ball spinning off Nacho Monreal’s hip and into the top corner, that gave Rennes the lead. But by the end, when the brilliant Ismaila Sarr headed home a deserved third, thus concealing Arsenal’s first defeat in France in a long while. Although, with the away goal, their chances aren’t ruined, provided they win at least 2-0 on Emirates.

Dinamo Zagreb 1-0 Benfica

The Croatian champions beating Benfica, without a doubt a beautiful surprise. It makes it more special since this is the first time Dinamo Zagreb have qualified from the Europa League group stages, and in the round of 32 have turned the score on Czech champions Viktoria Plzen, and Benfica was unbeaten in the competition (having qualified from the Champions League group stages, though, that was a given).

Both teams started hungrily, and though Benfica had the first attack, it was Spanish national Dani Olmo that threatened Benfica’s goal more than once. The game went 37 minutes without a goal until a foul on Dani Olmo in the box awarded Dinamo a penalty. Petković scored for the game’s only goal. While Gojak missed a one-on-one with the Benfica keeper, the game ended with Dinamo’s lead at the half. Dinamo continued with their momentum in the second half, and in the 47th minute, Oršić missed a shot on goal. Benfica started to press three minutes later, though they were unable to capitalize on their chances. Dinamo’s defense continued to be stable, and Benfica was not allowed a real opportunity. It also seemed that Dinamo slowed the game down conscientiously. In the second minute of added time, Gavranović missed a chance in front of the keeper, and Šitum hit the side netting just seconds later.

It’s a big surprise, and a great win, but it doesn’t mean anything, since the return leg in Lisbon is likely to be a nightmare for the Croatian side. Yet I must congratulate Dinamo for making such a strong impression on their longest European adventure. That would mean they’d go out in style.

Eintracht Frankfurt 0-0 Inter Milan

I wouldn’t label it as a surprise, considering Inter in Europa League is exactly what it is, but certainly it was a great gift for Frankfurt’s supporters on the eve of the club’s 120th birthday. Which was celebrated accordingly, with a spectacular choreography from Frankfurt’s ultras. The noise of the crowd was powerful, as a city and a club rejoiced at being involved in nights like this.

The first half was mostly uneventful, the highlight being that Inter won a penalty, with Kevin Trapp making a big save from Marcelo Brozovic’s strike to deny the Nerazzuri a precious away goal. The strike would have flattered the Italians, although even without Mauro Icardi and Radja Nainggolan they showed plenty of intelligence in stemming the Frankfurt press early. Their wing play also initially caused all sorts of problems for Frankfurt’s back three.

Quite quickly, Inter Milan looked tired, beaten, like a side that had succumbed to the slow beat of Frankfurt’s drum. Defender Martin Hinteregger turned in a career performance, but not even he could deliver the goal this crowd so deeply craved — the Austrian was guilty of heading wide at the back post when it looked easier to score. The absence of Ante Rebic was perhaps more noticeable than first considered as Luka Jovic and Haller, who have scored a combined 11 goals in the Europa League this term, looked one touch short of magic. Still no goal came. Mijat Gacinovic kept trying to thread the needle, but the final pass went astray. Filip Kostic kept bursting down the wing, but his efforts were not rewarded. Frankfurt were also denied a penalty of their own when Haller was tackled in the box, after which referee William Collum booked Makoto Hasebe for his protest of the non-call and sent a frustrated Adi Hütter to the stands.

Chelsea 3-0 Dynamo Kyiv

We can say from now on, we’re through with surprises and the following teams actually proved their worth. Or at least did their job. Chelsea continued their resurgence under Maurizio Sarri by putting one foot in the quarter-finals of the Europa League with a dominant 3-0 win over Dynamo Kiev.

Sarri’s side made it three wins in nine days thanks to goals from Pedro, Willian and substitute Callum Hudson-Odoi, but should be taking a far greater aggregate lead to Ukraine for next week’s return match. The Blues squandered a host of chances in the first leg of the last-16 tie as Dynamo goalkeeper Denys Boyko produced an inspired display, while Pedro had a strong penalty appeal turned down. With the Video Assistant Referee system not being used in this competition until the final, Dynamo could also have complaints about being denied a first-half penalty after a cross clipped the arm of Marcos Alonso during a rare foray forward. Facing a limited team with only one fit striker and an ultra-defensive formation designed to frustrate, the hosts were in complete control from start to finish. And their dominance was rewarded with 17 minutes played. Pedro, one of the players recalled, gained possession wide on the left, drove at the Dynamo defence and, after receiving the ball back via a delightful flick from Olivier Giroud, finished clinically through the legs of keeper Boyko. Loftus-Cheek was released by a superb pass from Pedro and he back-heeled into the path of Hudson-Odoi, allowing the 18-year-old forward to emphatically smash home.

With the result at hand, it will be almost impossible for Dynamo Kyiv to make amends in the return leg in Ukraine, and although they might win, qualification is far off the hook, even with all the recent surprises in European football.

Napoli 3-0 Red Bull Salzburg

Apart from Chelsea, Napoli also put one foot in the quarter-finals of the Europa League with a convincing 3-0 first leg victory over Red Bull Salzburg in Naples on Thursday night. Arkadiusz Milik opened the scoring with after 10 minutes as he rounded German goalkeeper Alexander Walke after being played through by Dries Mertens. The hosts didn’t take their foot of the gas, Fabian Ruiz doubling the lead just eight minutes later.

Napoli put one foot in the quarter-finals of the Europa League with a convincing 3-0 first leg victory over Red Bull Salzburg in Naples on Thursday night. Arkadiusz Milik opened the scoring with after 10 minutes as he rounded German goalkeeper Alexander Walke after being played through by Dries Mertens. The hosts didn’t take their foot of the gas, Fabian Ruiz doubling the lead just eight minutes later.

There’s a very small chance for anything happening in the return leg in Salzburg. Thus Napoli and Chelsea are among the only teams who respected their status as favorites, not only in the clash, but also in the race to win the trophy.

Zenit Saint Petersburg 1-3 Villareal

In the first place, this game didn’t end up in a surprise. It couldn’t have, since it was by far the most unpredictible clash in the whole draw. I mean, yes, the difference is that Zenit are leading in Russia, ready to clinch a new league title, while Villareal are battling relegation in La Liga, but given the history of both teams, rankings in this case wouldn’t mean anything. In the end, Villareal won, and are one step in the Europa League quarter-finals.

Former Leicester midfielder Vicente Iborra gave the Spanish side the lead but Sardar Azmoun immediately equalised, ending the first half in a tie. Second-half goals from Gerard Moreno and Manu Morlanes put the La Liga team in control.

Considering they have the return leg home, Villareal are less likely to bottle it up, so we can see them through without a problem.

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