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.
A Champions League final, semi-final and a group stage match. Confused? Don’t be. Here’s today’s three to watch:
1) UEFA Champions League semi-final, first leg: Chelsea vs. Barcelona, 20.45 CET/14.45 EST
The much-awaited clash between passing perfectionists and robust Route One-ers is finally upon us. The Catalans are huuuge favourites, but quietly confident murmurings have been coming out of Stamford Bridge over the past few days, albeit slightly incomprehensible ones. As ever when facing Pep Guardiola’s men, the way in which their opponents go about finding an answer to the ol’ question “how do we deal with wee twinkle-toes?” is likely to decide the outcome of the match. If Messi can be muffled (they could always steal his boots, but that’s soooo last night), and Drogba and Mata are on top form, we might just get a game.
2) CONCACAF Champions League final, first leg: Monterrey vs. Santos Laguna, 04.00 CET/22.00 EST
Yes, they’re both from the same country, and goodness knows that doesn’t normally lead to enthralling matches in the CCL’s European equivalent (we refer you to the AC Milan-Juventus snorefest final of 2003), but both Mexican sides are playing well, scoring goals and flying high at the top of the league. What’s not to like?
3) Copa Libertadores, Group 4: Boca Juniors vs. Zamora, 00.30 CET/18.30 EST
Boca Juniors could feasibly clinch first place with a win, but they may not be all that bothered, having already qualified for the next round. They’ve won four games in a row in all competitions, while their modest Venezuelan opponents, who’ve struggled badly in this year’s tourney, have lost their last four. One player who sadly won’t be taking to the pitch is Boca forward Santiago Silva, who broke two fingers smacking a Tigre fan on Sunday. No, really.
Things are hotting up in what we old gits like to call the European Cup, and there’s a Copa Libertadores tie thrown in for good measure. Today’s three to watch are:
1) UEFA Champions League quarter-final, second leg: Bayern Munich vs Marseille, 20.45 CET/14.45 EST
The German press have been less than complimentary about Marseille following Bayern’s comfortable 2-0 first-leg win in France last week, making particular fun of L’OM‘s reserve goalkeeper, who was slightly at fault for the opening goal. Usual No1 Steve Mandanda is back tonight, which should lessen the general sniggering as well as the number of goals conceded. While you should never, ever, ever underestimate a team guided by Didier Deschamps, it’s difficult to see past a Bayern victory.
2) UEFA Champions League quarter-final, second leg: Barcelona vs AC Milan, 20.45 CET/14.45 EST
The biggest game of the night by a milla en el campo, as they don’t say in Spain. Will Barcelona blow Milan away? Are AC the only team capable of stopping the Catalans? Will Messi score five? Will Ibrahimovic do anything of note? Will the Internet break down if I Rossoneri score an injury-time winner? No, Yes, No, No and Maybe are our well thought-out answers.
3) Copa Libertadores, Group 2: Lanus v Olimpia, 00.45 CET/18.45 EST
The South American Champs League has produced some closely contested groups this year, and Grupo Dos is a good example. With both teams having won on their last outing, and Olimpia’s fine form in the Paraguayan league being balanced out by the home advantage enjoyed by the mighty Mauro Camaronesi and Co., this match promises to be tighter than a Blue Man Group bodysuit.
Today’s Three up front are a surprisingly robust trio for a Thursday.
1) Liga: Racing vs Sevilla, 20.00 CET
It’s fast approaching squeaky bum time in Spain, and if tonight’s clash in Santander goes the way of the Andalusians, Racing’s long-suffering fans (Founded: 1913; trophies of note: zero) may have to gear themselves up for glamour trips to Las Palmas and Xerez next season.
2) Dutch Cup semi-final: AZ Alkmaar vs Heracles, 20.45 CET
If they can hold their nerve, AZ are looking good for a remarkable league and cup double. Jozy Altidore and Co. must first dispose of Heracles Almelo, a team they, well, disposed of in the league a few weeks ago. The mighty PSV await the winners in the final on April 8 in Rotterdam.
3) Copa Libertadores Group 1, Santos vs Juan Aurich, 20.00 BRT
Neymar, who’s so on fire that his team-mates have been detecting a burning smell coming off him in recent games, will try to drag his team by the bootlaces up to first place in a tightly contested section. Tightly contested, that is, if we disregard Peruvian outift Juan Aurich, who’ve had a bit of a ‘mare.