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 Germans are known for many things, but humour is not necessarily one of them. A couple of incidents in the football world this week have sent disseminators of lazy stereotypes scurrying back to their caves, however. First, there was this image, depicting the resourceful way in which fans of German regional side Magdeburg decided to help their team regain its nose for goal (their heroes had gone 5 matches without finding the net):
It worked, kind of. They scored, but ultimately lost 2-1
And then there was this photo, which shows Schalke fans protesting at the cost of tickets for their upcoming Europa League second-leg away clash with Atletico Madrid:
The banner reads (in Spanish, cleverly): “Tickets at 90 Euros = 1 Euro per minute? Football isn’t phone sex!”
Creators of the banner were heard explaining to their wives (in German this time) that a ‘friend’ had told them how much it cost, and that they had no personal experience of such a salacious service.
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.