Europa League

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Europa provides much-needed boost

Shola Ameobi Eden Hazard Mousa Dembele Luis Suarez
Shola Ameobi, Eden Hazard, Mousa Dembele and Luis Suarez all scored goals on Thursday.
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Jonathan Wilson

Jonathan Wilson is the editor of the football quarterly The Blizzard and writes for the Guardian, the National, Sports Illustrated, World Soccer and Cricinfo. He is the author of six books on football, including Inverting the Pyramid, which was named Football Book of the Year in both the UK and Italy. His latest book is The Outsider: A History of the Goalkeeper.

   
 

It looked dicey for a while but in the end three Premier League teams made it through to the last 16 of the Europa League on Thursday. Though Liverpool, the one team that did go out with heads held high, losing only on away goals after a stirring comeback. Russia also has three teams through, while Italy is the only other country with more than one representative still standing.

Yet all three of the English sides to go through were within a single goal of defeat, and the one that went out was within a single goal of progress. Tottenham Hotspur, who had the most eye-catching result. Having won the home leg against Lyon 2-1 with two Gareth Bale free kicks, Spurs fell behind to a Maxime Gonalons header, failing to deal with a free kick whipped in to the near post. But, in the final minute, Mousa Dembele surged through to fire in a low shot from 25 yards and set up an intriguing last-16 tie against Internazionale, which was a comfortable winner over the Romanian side CFR Cluj. It was against Inter two years ago, of course, that Spurs announced itself as a rising European force in two epic Champions League group games. It came from 4-0 down to lose 4-3 at the San Siro as Bale struck a hat trick, and Bale then destroyed Maicon again at White Hart Lane as Spurs won 3-1.

Newcastle United also went through, surviving freezing conditions and a passionate stadium to produce a highly impressive away performance, quelling Metalist Kharkiv before finding a winner midway through the second half. Moussa Sissoko was fouled by Metalist goalkeeper Oleksandr Goryainov as he ran on to a weak backpass and Shola Ameobi slammed in the penalty – his fifteenth European goal for the club, placing him behind only Alan Shearer in the all-time standings. Newcastle face Anzhi in the next round after the free-spending Russians, 3-1 up from the home leg, drew 1-1 away to Hannover. Hannover raised a glimmer of hope by taking a 70th-minute lead through Sergio Pinto but the giant Ivorien Lacina Traore made the game safe in the final minute.

Chelsea, which seemed to have sewn up its tie last week by winning 1-0 away to Sparta Prague, made heavy weather of the second leg and trailed for a long time at Stamford Bridge. A quick free kick from Lukas Vacha laid in Vaclav Kadlec, how wriggled by Gary Cahill before pulling the ball back for David Lafata, a signing in the January transfer window, to slam in. Spata goalkeeper Tomas Vaclik made a number of fine stops as Chelsea was profligate as ever. Though Fernando Torres was again wasteful, Rafael Benitez chose to praise him for getting in the right positions – there was always the danger that Sparta would nick a goal on the break that would have given it an away goals advantage.

The game looked to be heading for extra time when substitute Eden Hazard, brought on for Oscar to chants of “you don’t know what you’re doing” from Chelsea fans, sashayed away from his markers and thumped in a fierce shot form the edge of the box. The Blues now face Steaua Bucharest in the last 16 after the Romanian side overcame a 2-0 first-leg deficit to beat Ajax on penalties.

STRIDE FOR STRIDE

Check out the best shots from the Europa League's round of 32 action.

Liverpool came within a goal of an astonishing comeback against Zenit St. Petersburg. It had perhaps been unlucky to return from Russia 2-0 down after the first leg and the tie seemed to have been put beyond them when Jamie Carragher, playing his 150th European game for Liverpool, played a poor backpass that allowed Hulk through to open the scoring. That meant Liverpool had to score four and it had two of them by half time thanks to a Luis Suarez free kick and Joe Allen’s first goal for the club. When Suarez then swept in a second free kick with 31 minutes remaining, the comeback seemed on but goalkeeper Vyachelsav Malafeev made saves from Suarez and a Gerrard half-volley and Liverpool were denied.

Arguably the best team left in the competition, Atletico Madrid, second in la Liga and the defending champions in this competition, crashed out in Russia, winning 1-0 away to Rubin Kazan but losing 2-1 on aggregate, thanks to last-minute goal it conceded in the first leg when it sent its goalkeeper, Sergio Asenjo, for a corner and was caught on the break. Rubin face another Spanish side, the last one remaining in the competition, Levante, who completed a 4-0 aggregate win over Greek champions Olympiakos.

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Italy is the only other nation with more than one side through, Lazio joining Inter as goals from Alvaro Gonzalez and Antonio Candreva gave it a 2-0 win on the night, 5-3 on aggregate over Borussia Monchengladbach. The third Italian side, Napoli, was surprisingly beaten 5-0 on aggregate by Czech side Viktoria Plzen, although the damage was done last week when it won 3-0 in the San Paolo.

The other standout result of the evening was Stuttgart’s 2-0 win away to Racing Genk, who had forced a draw in Germany last week. The Cote d’Ivoire defender Arthur Boka got the first with a deflected strike before Christian Gentner sealed the win.

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