Well, what an amazing couple of nights in Europe’s premier competition, the Champions League! As surprising as the semi-final lineup is for some, it’s not for me. After all I managed to somehow predict every result correctly. Usually at this point, most would accept the plaudits and not test their luck. I, on the other hand, am willing to risk it all just a mere day later.
First though, for anyone who missed my Champions League article, can feel free to check it out: Champions League – Quarter Finals
So onto today then!
The UEFA Europa League has been Europe’s second-tier competition since 1971, but has only been known by its current name since the rebranding in 2009. In the 48 years since its creation, this annual competition has changed a lot, both in name and format.
As a football fan, it is a competition I hold dearly because of Galatasaray’s success in 2000. Since 2009, UEFA (Governing body of football in Europe) has tried to make the competition more appealing to the elite teams who feel as though it’s beneath them, which seems to be working when you look at the recent winners list. Holders Atletico Madrid have won three times (2010, 2012 and 2018), which is a feat equalled by Sevilla (2014, 2015, 2016). While Porto (2011), Chelsea (2013), and Manchester United (2017) have taken home the trophy on one occasion. All because the winner of the Europa League is guaranteed a place in the Champions League for the following season. Something that is difficult to achieve via the league, especially if you are from England or Spain.
So, let’s take a look at the quarter final games that will be played tonight across Europe.
Napoli (Ita) vs Arsenal (Eng)
Arsenal will be heading to Italy with a two-goal advantage thanks to Aaron Ramsey and an own-goal.
This match is going to be very intriguing, because you have a team like Arsenal who ideally could defend solidly, try to nick a goal at the other end of the field and waltz into the next round. Yet, anybody who understands football knows that Arsenal never make it look as simple as it sounds. Plus, Napoli isn’t some joke team that has no chance. However, drawing a blank in England, in the first leg, is a huge negative against them.
In the end, it will come down to whether or not Arsenal can get the away goal because they are likely to need it. Napoli are a dangerous team at home. They are yet to lose at the atmospheric San Paolo Stadium in Naples, only conceding two goals in five European games – one goal each against Paris St. Germain and Red Star Belgrade. More impressively, earlier on in the season, Napoli kept a clean sheet against Liverpool in a Champions League game which they absolutely dominated.
Impressive, right? However, there is one important factor that needs considering. This is the first time that Napoli are going into a game trailing. Knowing that if Arsenal score a goal at any stage of the game, then they will need FOUR.
Verdict: Napoli 3 Arsenal 1 (Arsenal go through on away goals)
Eintracht Frankfurt (Ger) vs Benfica (Por)
Benfica won the first game 4-2 thanks to a hat-trick from their 19-year-old sensation, Joao Felix.
This has the potential to be a repeat of the first-leg with plenty of goals and drama thanks to Frankfurt’s resilience in Portugal. Despite playing with 10-men for 70+ minutes, they managed to score twice and keep the tie alive.
The biggest problem facing the German team is that they are playing a team that is absolutely lethal in front of goal! Benfica has scored four goals in each of their last three games, and only two months ago won 10-0, yes 10-0, in a Portugal Primeira Liga match against Nacional.
Yet, I have a sneaky suspicion that Frankfurt are going to be the ones laughing come the final whistle, as long as they can keep all 11 men on the field.
Verdict: Eintracht Frankfurt 4 Benfica 1 (Frankfurt go through 6-5 on aggregate)
Chelsea (Eng) vs Slavia Prague (Cze)
Chelsea lead one-nil thanks to a late goal from Marcos Alonso.
This tie, despite being the closest on score, should be the easiest one to predict. Chelsea are better than Slavia Prague in every area of the field but we could have said the same about Prague’s previous two opponents, Genk and Sevilla.
Chelsea will need an early goal to calm the nerves and I expect them to get it through the irreplaceable Eden Hazard. That will give them the confidence to go and get a few more goals and put the tie to bed.
Verdict: Chelsea 3 Slavia Prague 0 (Chelsea win 4-0 on aggregate)
Valencia (Spa) vs Villarreal (Spa)
Valencia hold a somewhat lucky 3-1 advantage after scoring two goals in the 90th minute of the first-leg.
This all-Spanish affair features a couple of teams that are searching for a way back to their glory days. Both Valencia and Villarreal regularly featured in the latter stages of the Champions League, with the prior making it to the final on a couple of occasions. If truth be told, neither have convinced that they will be back competing at the highest level anytime soon.
This is not a game for the neutral, as I expect Valencia to systematically foul the Villarreal players on every occasion in order to stop their flow. There will be plenty of yellow cards, and even a sending off in the game. After all, if the home team can stop Villarreal from scoring three or more goals, then they are guaranteed to progress. There is some hope though for Villarreal – a.k.a. The Yellow Submarine – who have managed to score at least one goal in 13 of the last 15 games they’ve played. In three of those games they hit the back of the net three times, and on one occasion played out a 4-4 draw against…Barcelona!
Verdict: Valencia 1 Villarreal 1 (Valencia to kick their way into the next round. 4-2 on aggregate)