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Europa League – The stakes of the Tour de Barrage Back

Eight places remain to qualify for the 1/8th finals of the Europa League, so everything remains to be done in the Europa League return play-offs. The day of Thursday promises to be crisp since, as a reminder, the away goals rule no longer exists.

The UEFA Europa League knockout stages were introduced for the first time this season. Sixteen teams are affected: the runners-up in the UEFA Europa League and the eight third-placed teams in the UEFA Champions League group stage.

Dinamo Zagreb vs Sevilla (first leg: 1-3)

Can Dinamo stop the Europa League specialists from heading to another final? The 2022 final will take place at the Ramón Sánchez-Pizjuán stadium in Seville and last week’s 3-1 win puts Julen Lopetegui’s side in a strong position. But, as Croatian champions boss Željko Kopić pointed out, “the impression we gave by our game is better than the final score”. Talented Mislav Oršić scored once and came close to a sensational second goal, while Sevilla’s Yassine Bounou also made a remarkable double save. The first goal will be decisive.

Sevilla are taking part in the Europa League knockout stage for the seventh time. They have won the trophy in four of their last six appearances.

Olympiacos vs Atalanta (first leg: 1-2)

Gian Piero Gasperini admits that Atalanta have “took a long time to recover” of his delay last week and that his team, victim of injuries, cannot afford to start on the wrong foot in Piraeus. Olympiacos have lost just once in 19 home games this season, winning 15, and Tiquinho Soares’ fine goal in the first leg is testament to their quality. Atalanta also have attacking qualities but most of their players are sidelined, a problem made worse by Luis Muriel’s exit at half-time in the first leg. Berat Djimsiti has joked that he could play in attack after his first leg heroics – maybe not quite a joke.

Djimsiti had never scored twice in a game before pulling off the feat in the space of three minutes last week.

Real Sociedad v Leipzig (first leg: 2-2)

The Spaniards left Germany disappointed last week after losing their lead twice. They will be even more determined to bounce back from Sunday’s 4-0 loss to Athletic Bilbao in the Basque derby. There are reasons for optimism after a performance in the first leg which, according to Emil Forsberg, “gave us a hard time”, especially if Alexander Isak and Adnan Januzaj are back. Meanwhile, Leipzig coach Domenico Tedesco admitted his side were lucky with the penalty in the first leg and might be tempted to take matters into their own hands with a more attacking side.

Christopher Nkunku has scored eight goals in seven European appearances this season – seven in the Champions League and one in the Europa League.

Lazio vs Porto (first leg: 1-2)

Sérgio Conceição takes his Porto side to meet a club where he made more than 100 appearances in two trophy-laden spells. Porto have the advantage after Toni Martínez’s double in the first leg, their first goals in Europe justifying their surprise selection in the starting XI. Lazio will be without striker Mattia Zaccagni and will be looking to win a knockout tie for the first time since 2018.

Porto have won their last two home and away ties against Italian opponents, beating Juventus (2020/21) and Roma (2018/19) after extra time in the Champions League.

Napoli vs Barcelona (first leg: 1-1)

Sometimes players overdo it. Although Ferran Torres scored from his penalty, he was visibly upset at the end of the game after wasting several chances to put FC Barcelona ahead in the first leg; Xavi Hernández was quick to console and guide him. “He is ultra demanding with himself”said the FC Barcelona coach. “I know the opportunities are going to start rolling in“. Football gods often smile, so don’t be surprised to see the 21-year-old play a decisive role at a stadium that bears the name of a man who put his all into every performance: Diego Maradona.

Napoli are unbeaten in their last four Europa League home matches against Spanish clubs.

Betis v Zenit (first leg: 3-2)

Zenit hadn’t played a competitive game for two months before the first leg and started with all the energy of a bear emerging from its den after hibernation. Betis capitalized, taking a two-goal lead, but that only roused the beast. Zenit equalized on the half-hour mark and, despite conceding another goal before the break, the Russian side came close to equalizing when Daler Kuzyaev hit the crossbar. “We have to believe in it”said Zenit striker Artem Dzyuba. “In the first leg, we showed that a comeback is possible”.

Joaquín became the oldest player to provide a Europa League assist in the first leg – at 40 years and 211 days, he broke Molde’s Daniel Berg Hestad record against Ajax in 2015 (40 years and 133 days).

Rangers v Dortmund (first leg: 4-2)

When the hour comes, the man comes. Rangers arguably got the biggest result from the first legs, but Giovanni van Bronckhorst was keen to tone down that enthusiastic reaction. “It’s a big night, but only a big night”, he warned, with perhaps an eye on Erling Haaland sitting in the stands in Germany. Dortmund need goals and, in the fearsome Norwegian, they have one of the best scoring specialists in the world. But will he play? Anyway, the return match will be electric.

Dortmund have won just one win in nine games for Rangers, and three of their four trips to Ibrox have ended in defeat.

Braga v Sheriff (first leg: 0-2)

The good times continue for Moldovan champions Sheriff. First Moldovan side to reach the Champions League group stage, first Moldovan side to beat Real Madrid, first Moldovan side to extend their European campaign into the new year and, last week, the first to win a knockout tie direct. Adama Traore’s second goal – his seventh in Europe this season – felt like a decisive blow, but Braga have always loved the underdog label and have been as imposing at home this season as the cliff that forms one end of his stadium.

This is Sheriff’s 16th European game this season – a record for the club and the most, along with Dinamo Zagreb, of the 16 teams taking part in the Europa League knockout stages.


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