Round of 32: First LegBy: Dan | February 16th, 2012
Itâ€™s mid-winter, the labyrinthine group stage has been left by the wayside, and we can get down to the business of the Europa League knockout rounds. (Actually, business kicked off on Tuesday thanks to scheduling issues with the Champions League, but you get the point.)
Thanks to Manchester Unitedâ€™s failure to progress from their Champions League group, thereâ€™s an increased focus on this competition, which is good news, because the knockout rounds have rarely failed to produce some really entertaining football.
The first live match of the day for the US television audience was, for some reason, Lazio – Atletico Madrid. If I may channel Gob Bluth for a moment, I have to say that Manchester United are playing Ajax in the biggest name match up this stage of the Europa League/UEFA Cup has seen for years, and the live game is a marquee match from 1996? Come on.
Atletico Madrid posed a threat almost immediately. A stray Lazio pass across the middle of the pitch was converted into a chance for Falcao, who blazed over the bar from inside the box. That miss would prove to be costly for the mattress makers. Even though Atletico spent the next twenty or so minutes dominating possession, Lazio scored with their first meaningful action of the match. A long range shot by Antonio Candreva dipped on Atletcio goalkeeper Thibaut Courtois who could only spill the ball into the path of experienced poacher Miroslav Klose, who simply does not let opportunities like that go to waste.
Atleticoâ€™s suffering was short lived though. Falcao was involved again, as he headed a cross directly into the path of Adrian Lopez, who simply had to direct the ball into the net. Atletico took the lead ten minutes later. A backheeled flick from Adrian Lopez was seized on by Diego, who crossed for Falcao to slide onto and slam the ball into the roof of the net. Lazio continued to have trouble with the wide areas. Another cross was simply gazed at by the Lazio back line. Only a quick reaction by goalkeeper Federico Marchetti kept Falcaoâ€™s diving header from giving Atletico a two goal lead going into halftime.
Lazio started the second half determined to equalize, and Atletico didnâ€™t appear to be sitting back to protect their advantage, but by the hour mark the chances for either side to add to their tally were becoming fewer.
Atletico would strike again in the 63rd minute. Adrian Lopez ran down the right wing with the ball and crossed for Falcao, who, again, just had to to divert the ball into the empty net. Atletico had started to reassert their control over the game even before the third goal went in, but after taking a two goal lead, they were looking quite comfortable. Comfortable is how Atletico finished out the match, as they alternated between threatening to add a fourth goal, and settling back into cruise control, as the Roman crowed whistled its displeasure. I realize Lazio were injury depleted, but is this seriously the third best team in Serie A?
Elsewhere in the early slate of matches, Metalist Kharkiv put one very large foot in the round of 16 with a 4-0 win at Salzburg. The Ukrainian side took the lead just twenty seconds into the match, and things never improved for Salzburg. Lokomotiv Moscow fell behind to Athletic Bilbao just before half time, overturned the deficit with two second half strikes. Viktoria Plzen neutralized Schalke for much of their encounter, but a 75th minute Klaas Jan Huntelaar strike salvaged a draw for the Bundesliga club. AZ handed Belgian giants Anderlecht their first negative result in Europa League competition this season. Sporting braved a bitter winter night in Warsaw to snatch a late draw with Legia thanks to a spectacular stoppage time goal from Andre Santos.
Ajax, despite their struggles in domestic competition were up for the match with Manchester United, but despite giving them a fairly even match, United were clinical where Ajax were not. Luke Young and Javier Hernandez gave the English champions a two goal advantage to take back to Manchester.
The second live match for US television was the eagerly awaited encounter between Stoke City and Valencia. I already spoke my piece on the build up, so Iâ€™m just going to get straight to it.
Stoke were straight on the long ball attack and looking dangerous from the kick off. After Stokeâ€™s opening flurry, the match settled down somewhat, which turned the proceedings in favor of Valencia and their possession game. It was the Spanish side who were unfortunate not to take the lead in the 20th minute, when Jonas squeezed off a tight angle shot in the Stoke area that Asmir Begovic did well to keep out. Valencia came close again minutes later. A shot from the edge of the area was deflected by a Stoke defenderâ€™s head, unsurprising, as there appeared to be about seven or eight Stoke players in the box. The deflected shot was just wide of Begovicâ€™s post.
Somewhat ironically, a long ball, of sorts, provided Valenciaâ€™s break through in the 35th minute. Valencia had been threatening around the Stoke area for some time, but it was a long range strike from Mehmet Topal that flew into the top corner past a helpless Begovic.
Stoke almost got back on terms in the 39th minute, with their best chance of the game so far. A cross found Peter Crouch, who scissor kicked just over the bar. The Crouch chance was a one off though, as Valencia were able to see the first half through without further incident.
Valencia picked up where they left off to start the second half. Stoke were lucky not to go 2-0 behind when Sofiane Feghouli was allowed to waltz into the Stoke box, and his blocked cross just missed turning into an own goal for the Potters. Stoke were in danger again minutes later, when only a professional foul from Ryan Shawcross stopped Valencia from a breakaway pass.
As the game passed the hour mark, Valencia remained in relative control of things. Stoke began to see a bit more of the ball, but their long range efforts were looking increasingly speculative, instead of designed. For their part, Valencia missed a golden opportunity in the 70th minute to add a second goal. As Stoke pushed forward in search of the equalizer, Valencia were offered more counter attacking space. Jeremy Mathieu found Feghouli just inside the Stoke box, and the Algerianâ€™s low shot beat Begovic, but was denied by the goal post.
The final stages of the match were marked more by Stoke Cityâ€™s loss of their collective temper than by their futile search for an equalizer. Stoke picked up three yellow cards in less than three minutes as their frustration mounted. The match ultimately finished without anything else of note occuring.
In the other late games, there was an outbreak of late scoring. Hannover were 1-0 to Club Brugge and had an equalizer ruled out before striking back in the 73rd and 80th minutes. Sergio Aguero took advantage of the leaky back line that has plagued Porto all season to give Manchester City a late win in Portugal and a significant advantage in the tie. Wisla Krakow, reduced to ten men early on in the match and 1-0 to Standard Liege equalized from a last ditch free kick that found its way onto Tsvetan Genkovâ€™s head.
In less dramatic matches, Twente only needed one goal to beat Steaua Bucharest, PAOK and Udinese played out a goalless draw, while PSV were 2-0 up on Trabzonspor after just 11 minutes. The Turkish side was able to pull one back, but that was it.
FC Porto 1 – Manchester City 2
Ajax Amsterdam 0 – Manchester United 2
Lokomotiv Moscow 2 – Athletic Bilbao 1
Red Bull Salzburg 0 – Metalist Kharkiv 4
Stoke City 0 – Valencia 1
Rubin Kazan 0 – Olympiacos 1*
AZ Alkmaar 1 – Anderlecht 0
SS Lazio 1 – Atletico Madrid 3
Steaua Bucharest 0 – Twente 1
Viktoria Plzen 1 – Schalke 04 1
Wisla Krakow 1 – Standard Liege 1
Braga 0 – Besiktas 2*
Udinese 0 – PAOK 0
Trabzonspor 1 – PSV Eindhoven 2
Hannover 96 2 – Club Brugge 1
Legia Warsaw 2 – Sporting CP 2
*Played Tuesday February 14