7 reasons to get excited about the Europa League knockouts
1. A lot of Champions League-quality clashes
Borussia Dortmund versus Porto is a great fixture by any standards, especially when the magnificent atmosphere at both stadiums is taken into account
Even now, in the round of 32, a few genuine European heavyweights have been drawn against each other.
Borussia Dortmund versus Porto is a great fixture by any standards, especially when the magnificent atmosphere at both stadiums is taken into account. Villarreal’s tie with Napoli is also bound to produce outstanding quality – the best attack in Serie A face the second-best defence in the Primera Division, with both sides hungry for European success.
Fiorentina against Tottenham has great potential if Mauricio Pochettino and Paulo Sousa field their best possible lineups, while Galatasaray and Lazio will be desperate for good results in Europe given their domestic struggles. Meanwhile, Sporting's clash with Bayer Leverkusen will feature two of the hottest strikers on the continent in Islam Slimani and Javier Hernandez.
And that’s only the start: the games are likely to get even better as the final gets closer.
2. There's no clear favourite
LAST FIVE WINNERS
- 2015 Sevilla (vs Dnipro)
- 2014 Sevilla (vs Benfica)
- 2013 Chelsea (vs Benfica)
- 2012 Atletico Madrid (vs Athletic Bilbao)
- 2011 Porto (vs Braga)
There are probably at least 10 teams that harbour realistic ambitions of going all the way.
Manchester United, Tottenham, Liverpool, Dortmund, Porto, Fiorentina, Napoli, Sevilla, Villarreal, Leverkusen and Schalke are all more than capable of triumphing, while it would also be foolish to discount the likes of Marseille, Athletic Bilbao, Sporting, Olympiakos and Fenerbahce. The tournament is as wide open as you could possibly imagine, which is patently a good thing.
3. Can Man United save their season?
It is somewhat ironic that United may ultimately profit from their group stage elimination from the Champions League
Louis van Gaal even said so himself. The Red Devils' chances of qualifying for the Champions League via a top-four finish in the Premier League look pretty slim, with the Dutchman admitting after the defeat at Sunderland that "the Europa League is an easier route". He did add, however, that it is "also difficult because you have a fantastic European level in that tournament".
It is somewhat ironic that United may ultimately profit from their group-stage elimination from the Champions League; Wolfsburg, who finished ahead of the Old Trafford side atop Group B, are similarly likely to miss out on the top four in the Bundesliga but won't be able to qualify for Europe’s leading competition by alternative means.
In addition, the Europa League is the only senior trophy the club has never won. Van Gaal has lifted it before, though, guiding Ajax to what was his first piece of silverware as a manager in 1992 – a triumph that essentially saved his job in Amsterdam. Winning the competition again this year would be a nice way for the 64-year-old to come full circle.
4. Can Sevilla make history?
They've already won the Europa League/UEFA Cup more times than any other team in history, with Juventus, Inter and Liverpool stuck behind them on three apiece
Sevilla seem to like winning this tournament in successive seasons: they did so under Juande Ramos in 2006 and 2007, with Unai Emery then leading them to back-to-back successes in 2014 and 2015. They've already won the Europa League/UEFA Cup more times than any other team in history, with Juventus, Inter and Liverpool stuck behind them on three apiece.
Can the Spaniards make it three in a row? Only three sides have ever successfully defended a European trophy twice: Real Madrid won the European Cup in its first five seasons between 1956 and 1960, Ajax lifted it in 1971, 1972 and 1973 and Bayern Munich claimed Ol’ Big Ears on three occasions between 1974 and 1976.
The Europa League may be considered a lesser tournament – Sevilla, after all, only dropped into it this year after failing in the Champions League – but winning it three years in a row would still be a remarkable achievement.
5. Gary Neville's big challenge
Neville will know that the Europa League presents him with an excellent opportunity to prove the doubters wrong in his first coaching job
G-Nev’s managerial debut came in the Champions League, with his Valencia side’s meek loss to Lyon relegating them to the Europa League. After finally getting off the mark with his first La Liga victory on Saturday, the former England international will now be determined to record another win against Rapid Vienna on Thursday.
Neville will know that the Europa League presents him with an excellent opportunity to prove the doubters wrong in his first coaching job. Rapid are a very decent side, but progress for Valencia – and a potential future tie with Manchester United – could be huge for Neville on an individual level.
6. Jurgen Klopp returns to Germany
The Liverpool manager probably didn’t expect to be back in his homeland so soon, but the Reds’ tie with Augsburg means Klopp will contest his first match on German soil since leaving Borussia Dortmund at the end of last season.
Klopp’s last trip to Augsburg ended in defeat, although he was victorious in all of his previous visits to the WWK Arena. What will be his fate this time?
7. Fine individual talent on show
The Marseille striker, who has been linked with Arsenal and Tottenham, could be one of the hottest properties on the planet by the summer
The Europa League provides a terrific platform for young players to shine. There are numerous prospects who will be aiming to do exactly that in the knockout rounds, but Michy Batshuayi could be the most exciting of the lot. The Marseille striker, who has been linked with Arsenal and Tottenham, could be one of the hottest properties on the planet by the summer, with European success doing his prospects of a big-money move no harm.
There’s also the small matter of winning his personal battle with Romelu Lukaku, Christian Benteke and Divock Origi to decide who will start up front for Belgium at Euro 2016, with some positive performances for Marseille in Europe likely to boost his cause considerably.
Batshuayi finishes a super solo goal
Don't forget too, that Shakhtar Donetsk head into their clash against Schalke without the 26-goal Alex Teixeira, who joined Chinese Super League side Jiangsu Suning for €50m. The Ukrainians are used to losing their best players to other clubs – so naturally, focus will turn to the next players who could tread a path once walked by the likes of Willian, Fernandinho and Douglas Costa.