Heavy presence for England in Europa League
MANCHESTER, England (AP) — After flopping in the Champions League, English clubs will look to make amends in the Europa League on Thursday when Chelsea, Tottenham and Newcastle play in the quarterfinals.
For the first time since 1996, no team from England reached the last eight of the Champions League, leading many to question the current strength of the much-heralded Premier League.
Yet, the country makes up nearly half of the remaining Europa League teams and the trio was kept apart in the quarterfinal draw.
European champion Chelsea is the tournament favorite and hosts Rubin Kazan boosted by its victory over Manchester United in the FA Cup quarterfinals, keeping the side on course for a cup double after a disappointing Premier League campaign, where it lies fourth.
“We are not having such a fantastic season in terms of the league, but it shows we can still beat the top teams and it gives us confidence to play another game on Thursday,” Chelsea goalkeeper Petr Cech said. “We have another semifinal to book in the Europa League and hopefully we are going to go through.”
However, there is no end in sight for Rafa Benitez’s side in terms of its grueling fixture list, with the match against Rubin being Chelsea’s third in six days. It has four more over the following 12 days and the schedule is beginning to have an effect, with defenders Ashley Cole and Gary Cahill picking up injuries that will rule them out of both quarterfinal legs.
The Russian visitors have already eliminated defending champion Atletico Madrid in the knockout stage and are also unbeaten in their last five away matches in the Europa League, drawing home and away to Inter Milan in the group stage.
“They can score goals away, they will try to do that,” Benitez said Wednesday. “It will be tough.”
Basel’s European record couldn’t be more different ahead of its trip to Tottenham — the Swiss team hasn’t won on the road in the competition this season and has never won in England in eight previous visits.
Tottenham coach Andre Villas-Boas is not taking Basel lightly, though, and was in Lucerne on Monday to see his opponents move clear atop the Swiss league for the first time this season, winning 4-0. Basel also knocked out big-spending Zenit St. Petersburg in the last 16.
“Obviously they have recent European experience that we don’t have,” Villas-Boas, who won the competition with FC Porto in 2011, said Wednesday. “They have got tremendous results in the past year with Man United and teams like Bayern Munich (in the Champions League) — teams they have surprised.
“I’m sure that the key to the game will be both teams’ motivations and the quality of the individuals — we have to admit that we have superior players.”
In making that point, Villas-Boas would likely have been referring to Gareth Bale, who has been one of the form players in Europe after scoring 27 goals this season.
Even France great Zinedine Zidane is impressed.
“This year, the player who’s impressed me most is not actually playing in the Champions League. He’s playing in ‘the other cup,’ and that’s Bale,” Zidane told Sky Sports on Tuesday. “He’s unique. He makes things look easy, his pace is frightening, his acceleration is unbelievable because of his ability to go through the gears in very little space.”
Tottenham will be without striker Jermain Defoe, who is also likely to miss the second leg because of what Villas-Boas described as a “muscle injury.”
Newcastle completes the English trio but has the toughest task after being drawn against Benfica, which is unbeaten in the Portuguese league this season.
Benfica coach Jorge Jesus’ assertion that it’s a “50-50” match may be slightly misleading, with Newcastle currently fighting against relegation in the Premier League and coming off a 4-0 loss at Manchester City on Saturday.
“We’ll have played two of the best teams in Europe, I think, in Manchester City and Benfica this week,” Newcastle manager Alan Pardew said.
In the other quarterfinal, Lazio visits Fenerbahce.