“The Europa League is coming,” goes the murmur on the streets of Bucharest, the city that will have the pleasure of laying on a lavish banquet for an Iberian love-in on 9th May. Or it could be that Romanians are all massive Game of Thones fans, and have a flair for the dramatic? With that in mind, we thought it would be an uproarius jape if, in a twist on Celebrity Death Match, we assigned one of George R. R. Martin’s morally ambiguous characters to each team below, based on how long they have left in the Europa League/Brazilian Cup and in the TV/book series. So not only can we not be bothered doing any proper work today, but we’re going to blithely toss around cryptic spoilers at the same time. Here’s today’s three to watch:
1) UEFA Europa League semi-final, second leg: Valencia vs. Atletico Bilbao, 21.05 CET/15.05 EST
Robb Stark vs. Jamie Lannister
2) UEFA Europa League semi-final, second leg: Athletic Bilbao vs. Sporting Lisbon, 21.05 CET/15.05 EST
Tyrion Lannister vs. Jon Stark
3) Brazilian Cup: Coritiba vs. Paysandu, 00.30 CET/17.30 EST
Littlefinger vs. Catelyn Stark
The Europa League has reached the last four, but if Pouty Platini has his way, it won’t be around for much longer for people to slag it off (behaviour they indulge in mainly because their club has failed to qualify, you’ll generally find). Get it while it’s hot in today’s three to watch:
1) UEFA Europa League semi-final, first leg: Atlético Madrid vs. Valencia, 21.05 CET/15.05 EST
Atlético have won nine in a row in the EL, while Valencia are coming into the game off the back of what can only be described as a 4-0 rogering by Espanyol. The presence of quality performers like Diego and Radamel Falcao on one side, and Roberto Soldado and Sofiane Feghouli on the other, should at least ensure an entertaining encounter at the Vicente Calderon. Fans of Los Che still moan about how Madrid “conned and cheated” them out of the 2010 quarter-final, so a win here would doubtless cut down on the carping a little. Until the next media-created controversy.
2) UEFA Europa League semi-final, first leg: Sporting Lisbon vs. Athletic Bilbao, 21.05 CET/15.05 EST
Athletic Bilbao have become the second favourite side of anyone who claims to know anything about football this season, and at 3/1 to win in Lisbon tonight, there will be more than one punter currently sticking his hard-earned spondoolicks on the Basques putting on another masterclass. Sporting struggled against Metallist in the last round, and will be hard-pressed to contain the charging hordes if Iker Muniain and Fernando Llorente are in el moodo.
3) Copa Libertadores, Group 1: Santos vs. The Strongest, 00.45 CET/18.45 EST
Twelve teams have already reached the knockout stage of the Copa Libertadores, but reigning champions Santos have a wee bit of work to do to join them. Neymar, Ganso and Co. need a point at home to the team with the coolest name in football, The Strongest of Bolivia. If The Strongest happened to prove that they were, erm, the strongest, and Internacional won at the same time, Pele’s old team would be out on their 100-year-old ears.
The Europa League, forever the bridesmaid to the Champions League’s bride? Maybe, but sometimes your friend’s tasteful, family-only affair in a quaint rural venue is preferable to your brash cousin’s 200-guest abomination complete with sushi bar, magicians and dancing camels.
1) UEFA Europa League quarter-final, second leg: Valencia vs AZ Alkmaar, 21.05 CET/15.05 EST
The Dutch are 2-1 up, which means their jacket is on a shoogly nail. Valencia’s form has been dodgy recently, so much so that their manager comes out in hives every time the club releases a press statement. In goal machine Roberto Soldado and strike partner Aritz Aduriz, Los Che have the weapons to blow any team away, so AZ Alkmaar will need to keep things tighter than the proverbial duck’s posterior as they bid to become the first side from the Netherlands to win a European trophy since Feyenoord in 2002.
2) UEFA Europa League quarter-final, second leg: Hannover 96 vs Atletico Madrid, 21.05 CET/15.05 EST
For all the talk of an all-Spanish Europa final in Bucharest on 9th May, it’s quite feasible that Athletic Bilbao, rather than Atletico Madrid and/or Valencia, could be the only Liga side left in the competition when the fat lady lets out a burst of ‘Ole! Ole! Ole!’ later tonight. Hannover, while ending up on the losing side (1-2) in the Spanish capital, never looked unduly troubled, and will be acutely aware that one goal followed by a spot of park-the-bus will see them into the last four in what is just their second-ever foray into Europe.
3) UEFA Europa League quarter-final, second leg: Athletic Bilbao vs Schalke, 21.05 CET/15.05 EST
Given the first-leg score, we seriously considered not including this one, especially as the fourth tie – Metalist vs Sporting – is finely poised. But as the football on show in the initial match between these two excellent sides was nothing less than saliva-inducing at times, it gets the nod. If there is currently a finer sight in sport than Fernando Llorente, Iker Muniain and Co. rampaging forward on the break, we need, nay, we demand to be told about it.
The best succinct one-liner we’ve ever heard came from the mouth of English comedian Les Dawson, and it is one that son-in-laws the world over can relate to: “I can always tell when the mother-in-law’s coming to stay – the mice throw themselves on the traps.” As sometimes it’s best to get straight to the point, today’s previews have a certain direct quality about them.
1) Liga: Barcelona vs Athletic Bilbao, 22.00 CET/16.00 EST
If brilliant Basque blitzers Bilbao can replicate their mind-blowing Europa League form, and allowing for awful alliteration, this match could become the must-see fixture in world football this weekend.
2) Ligue 1: Nancy vs PSG, 21.00 CET/15.00 EST
PSG fans are beginning to realise that pesky leaders Montpellier, the Kim Kardashian of the French top flight, are just not going to go away, so capturing three points in Lorraine today is essential.
3) Bundesliga: Hertha Berlin vs Wolfsburg, 18.30 CET/12.30 EST
Hertha may have shipped six goals to Bayern a fortnight ago, but everybody’s doing that at the moment, so they’ll look to continue the form they showed at Mainz last week in their increasingly desperate attempts to avoid playing at Duisburg next season.
It’s a Europa League extravaganza today, a competition that, for Marathon-eaters of a certain age, will always be the ‘UEFA Cup’.
1) UEFA Europa League quarter-final, first leg: AZ Alkmaar vs Valencia, 21.05 CET/15.05 EST
Alkmaar are going well in the league, but got booted out of the Dutch Cup last week by modest Heracles. Valencia look like they may achieve this season’s domestic objective, which was to finish within 800 points of Real and Barcelona. Amazingly, despite making that third spot their own, coach Unaï Emery is under considerable pressure, mainly due to a run of poor results, including a shock home loss to bottom club Real Zaragoza. A bad defeat here coupled with a failure to beat Levante in this weekend’s Valencia derby could see him being politely asked to spend a little more time in his vegetable garden.
2) UEFA Europa League quarter-final, first leg: Schalke vs Athletic Bilbao, 21.05 CET/15.05 EST
Schalke are playing well and contain debatably the most in-form striker in the world in their line-up, Jan-Klass Huntelaar. Bilbao gave Man United the most awful rogering (x2) in the last round that at times made it seem as if they were the league champions and the English team the also-rans. Watch for strong Schalke pressure and speedy Basque counters. It could well be an absolute cracker, but then, we’ve said that a few times this season.
3) UEFA Europa League quarter-final, first leg: Atletico Madrid vs Hanover 96, 21.05 CET/15.05 EST
Hanover, in just their second-ever European campaign, have crept stealthily into the last eight like a Rush Limbaugh sponsor, but have recorded impressive results along the way – they lost just one of their pool games, and comfortably dispatched a solid Standard Liege side last time out. Atletico, who won this competition as recently as 2010, will be favourites, but if the Germans can keep it watertight at the back, a raucous 50,000-strong second-leg crowd awaits to propel them into the uncharted seas of the semis.