Europa League is slowly progressing towards the business end, as eight intriguing ties await the fans. Historically, the round of 16 return leg has produced somethrilling matches in the past and there is little to suggest that it will be any different this time around.
Porto v CSKA
FC Porto, the current league leaders in Portugal enjoy a comfortable advantage over their closest rivals for the domestic title. At the continental level, Porto have always been threat to some of the bigger names. During the current edition of Europa League, the Portistas rode on an exuberant run of form winning five out of their six group games. Much like their Portuguese opponents, CSKA too had a dream run in the group stages followed by a narrow 1-2 aggregate victory over the Greek unit PAOK. In first leg CSKA Moscow dominated much of the first forty-five minutes but was unable to find the back of the net. Porto slowly came back into the match and created numerous chances. It was just a matter of time before the away team would score a goal and Fredy Guarin made no mistake on the 70th minute to grab a vital away goal. The Portuguese side has been almost unbeatable on their home turf in last 5-6 seasons and is the clear favourites to win this tie.
Prediction: Porto 1-0 CSKA
Paris St Germain v Benfica
Reigning Portuguese Champions Benfica lock horns with Claude Makelele led French side Paris Saint-Germaine. Losing down a string of prodigious youngsters in David Luiz, Angel De Maria and Ramires, Benfica was always deemed to experience a slump in their form and their domestic form much testifies this. PSG have lately recuperated their league campaign and are now only marginally adrift of the league leaders Lille. In Europe, they fared reasonably well in the group stages beating Sevilla in process of winning the group. In Lisbon the French team took a shock lead through Lyunindula. Benfica looked considerably shaken after that goal and could have easily conceded more goals had the goal-post not come to their rescue. Maxi Perreira calmed the jangling nerves with a sweet strike just before half-time. Eusebio’s former club came back much stronger in 2nd half and enjoyed a lions share of possession. Jara’s goal in 82nd minute ensured that Benfica maintain its perfect record against French teams. PSG, on the other hand, will be happy with an away goal. This tie is delicately poised.
Prediction: PSG 2-1 Benfica (PSG to win in penalty kicks)
Liverpool v Braga
The third and final remaining Portuguese team, SC Braga met England’s traditional European stalwarts Liverpool. The Merseyside unit has lately demonstrated a drastic turn in form and under the reins of Kop legend Kenny Dalglish. Last week, the unheralded club from Portugal achieved one of the biggest wins in their history by defeating the five time European champions 1-0. Bolstered by a vociferous home crowd, the home team dominated most of the match played in ‘The Quarry”. Dalglish’s men were a mere shadow of the team that schooled Man United two weeks ago. Kyrgiakos’ sloppy challenge on Mossoro earned Braga a penalty kick and Alan made no mistakes from the spot. Anfield is infamous for its European nights – the Reds need to make massive improvements on their first leg performance if they have to progress to quarter final.
Prediction: Liverpool 3-1 Braga
Manchester City v Dynamo Kiev
Liverpool’s compatriots Manchester City were held for a stalemate in the Round of 32 by the Greek side Aris during the first leg but the blue half of Manchester was put on a high at Eastlands when they treated the Greeks with hostility handing them over a humbling 3-0 defeat. They will need to produce a similar kind of performance to overturn the 2-0 deficit from first leg. Dynamo Kiev played almost a perfect match at the Lobanovsky Stadium. Andriy Shevchenko rolled back the years outing the home side ahead after half an hour. Gusev and Milsevskiy also performed admirably, the former scoring Dynamo’s 2nd goal. City could have conceded more goals had Joe Hart not pulled off some heroic stops. City has been difficult to defeat in City of Manchester Stadium but their opponents are in a better position to progress.
Prediction: Manchester City 1-1 Dynamo Kiev
Zenit St. Petersburg v FC Twente
Much like the Portuguese, the Dutch too are fielding three Eredivise teams at this stage in the competition. The reigning champions FC Twente, after failing to advance from the group stages in the Champions League, qualified to play the Round of 32 in the Europa League where they beat the resolute Russian team Rubin Kazan. Michel Preud’homme’s side look good enough to claim another Russian victim in round of 16. As we said in our last preview, Twente is a well organized side and Zenit can ill afford to repeat their mistakes from last round. Zenit didn’t learn and made the same mistakes as Twente deservedly won 3-0. The current Russian champions face an almost impossible task of overturning a three goal deficit.
Prediction: Zenit 1-0 Twente
Rangers v PSV
Current Eredivise leaders PSV Eindhoven have been drawn to play Scottish champions Rangers. During the 1977-78 season, PSV won the then UEFA Cup; given the current form, they have what it takes to break the European jinx of the club and reclaim part of their glorious history. PSV failed to break the trend of underperforming against Scottish opponents as they were held to a 0-0 draw at their Eindhoven. Rangers showed glimpses of its well organized and resolute defending (dismissed as ‘anti-football at that time) which took them to a UEFA Cup final a few seasons back. Ibrox Park is never an easy place to go and grab a win – current Dutch league leaders need a special performance to progress to quarter final.
Prediction: – Rangers 1-0 PSV
Spartak Moscow v Ajax
In Euro 2008, Russia stunned the world beating tournament favourites Netherlands at the Quarter Final stage. Spartak Moscow’s victory over Ajax in Amsterdam wasn’t that big a shock but still was a surprise. Ajax created more chances but was let down by poor finishing. Spartak hasn’t made the best of starts in Russian Premier League, losing 4-0 in first match. Ajax is still in with a good chance to overturn Spartak’s advantage from first leg.
Prediction: Spartak 1-1 Ajax
Villarreal v Bayer Leverkusen
As expected the clash between Villarreal and Bayer produced fireworks in first leg. Kadlec put the home team ahead after 32 minutes. Bayer dominated early exchanges as Rossi scored against the run of play to make it 1-1 just before half time. In second half Nilmar came on in what would prove to be a tactical master stroke. The Brazilian single headedly turned the game around for Yellow Submarines – making it 1-2 on 70th minute. Bayern came back to make it 2-2 after just two minutes through Castro. This night belonged to Nilmar as he scored his second goal deep into injury time to snatch a huge 3-2 win for the visitors. Bayer is still not out of this tie and the return leg promises to be another memorable encounter.
Prediction: Villarreal 1-1 Bayer
(With inputs from Parth Pandya)