Chelsea, Inter up against it in Europa League
LONDON (AP) — After slumping to miserable first-leg losses last week, two recent Champions League winners have it all to do to reach the quarterfinals of the second-tier Europa League on Thursday.
Yet, while Chelsea is in a positive frame of mind as it looks to overturn a 1-0 deficit to Steaua Bucharest, Inter Milan is in the grip of a crisis heading into a return match against Tottenham already 3-0 behind.
Italian media are speculating that the jobs of coach Andrea Stramaccioni and sports director Marco Branca are on the line if things don’t turn around soon, with Inter seemingly on its way out of Europe and having won only three of its last 13 matches in Serie A.
“I think my job will be judged at the end of the season, not now,” Stramaccioni said on Wednesday. “Then it will be up to the president (Massimo Moratti) what to do. Moratti is angry and so are we.”
Inter is grateful for small mercies in its current situation, so the absence of Spurs forward Gareth Bale, who is suspended for collecting a yellow card for diving in the first leg, boosts the Italian side’s hopes of an unlikely comeback.
Chelsea also missed out on scoring a crucial away goal last week but will be confident of bringing down Steaua, having come from 2-0 down to draw 2-2 at Manchester United in the FA Cup on Sunday.
That display at least showed Chelsea is behind interim coach Rafa Benitez, even if most of the fans of the reigning European champions aren’t.
“You could see everybody working so hard, passion, the commitment and also the quality. Hopefully it will be good for the rest of the season,” Benitez said.
“If we see the character that we saw, we have a chance.”
Russia, whose domestic competition recently resumed after a winter break, has three teams in the last 16 but all face fights to survive to the quarterfinals.
Zenit St. Petersburg, the 2008 winner, is 2-0 down to Basel after the first leg in Switzerland, while Anzhi Makhachkala drew 0-0 at home to Newcastle. Rubin Kazan eliminated defending champion Atletico Madrid in the last round but is tied 0-0 with another Spanish team, Levante, ahead of a home second leg.
Fenerbahce and Lazio should advance after winning first legs away to Plzen (1-0) and Stuttgart (2-0), respectively. Bordeaux must overturn a 1-0 loss at Benfica last week in the other match.
Tottenham’s focus isn’t completely on what happens on the pitch at San Siro.
The club’s last two trips abroad in the Europa League — to Rome to take on Lazio and then Lyon last month — have been marred by apparent anti-Semitic attacks on its supporters. Tottenham is known for having a large Jewish fan base from north London.
Milan police have been in contact with Tottenham, English authorities and UEFA over security for the match while Tottenham said it “has held extensive discussions with the Foreign Office and Italian Police . regarding their assistance to us on the issue of fan safety.”
What should be a routine passage to the last eight has been compromised slightly by the absence of Bale, whose booking last week was welcomed by manager Andre Villas-Boas so the winger could be “clean” for the next round.
“He has been influential in consecutive games but hopefully we can make it without him,” Villas-Boas said of Bale, who has scored 11 goals in his last 10 matches.
Of the teams that started the Europa League group stage, Spurs are one of only two unbeaten sides, along with Lazio.
An early goal appears crucial for Inter, yet scoring has been a major problem for the team. It has struggled to find a replacement since forward Diego Milito was ruled out for the season with a knee injury last month, and was widely criticized for bringing in out-of-form former Norway striker John Carew for a tryout which ended after just one day.
Inter lost 1-0 at home to Bologna in Serie A at the weekend.
“What’s worrying is our play, which just isn’t there,” veteran Inter defender Cristian Chivu said. “So that’s what we’re working on, both the physical and mental aspects.
“We have one foot outside the Europa (League) already but we’re going to give our all if we can just get everyone — players, staff, management and fans — moving in the same direction.”
Steaua revived memories of the Romanian team’s glory days in the 1980s, when it reached two European Cup finals - winning one, with its victory over Chelsea.
Repeating the feat, this time at Stamford Bridge, is unlikely but the pressure is all on Chelsea with just the Europa League and the FA Cup left as realistic opportunities for silverware this season.