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.