The Europa has bite in the knockout openers

“Europa Bites!” Kate Partridge champions the second tier tournament in her latest Euro Bites blog, after a mixed opening week in the European knockout stages.

The Europa League is the Marmite of continental football. Players and managers facing games on Thursdays and Sundays bemoan a day’s missed prep. Stats show Europa campaigns can considerably affect Premier League finishes. But a BBC poll said two-thirds of fans want in – and the first leg of the Last 32 produced more goal-fest fun for the neutral than its big flash Champions League brother.

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More than 3,700 fans of backfiring Everton went to Switzerland, and saw Romelu Lukaku bag his first club hat-trick in a stirring 4-1 comeback win at Young Boys of Bern. The result also threw up the bizarre if improbable scenario that Roberto Martinez’s men could lift the trophy and so qualify for next season’s Champions League – but still get relegated after an iffy domestic run. Unreal.

Back home, the UK’s three other contenders also put their fans through the mill. Tottenham fans chuntered as Mauricio Pochettino held back red-hot spur Harry Kane until the last half hour in the 1-1 draw with Fiorentina. It also produced another quandary: Spurs must now go all out in Italy – but face Chelsea in the League Cup final just three days later. Is playing stars like Kane in Florence worth the injury risk?

Liverpool’s drop into Europe’s second tier produced a vital first continental win in six – just. Mario Balotelli brushed aside spot-kick protocol and the goalkeeper to snatch a late 1-0 win over Besiktas. With a penalty scoring record of 26 from 28, the Italian snubbed skipper Jordan Henderson and backed himself to score. With a club tally of just three goals, who else would have.

Super, if insubordinate, timing. The return leg in Istanbul falls between League fixtures at Southampton and against champions Manchester City.

And if we’re talking Europe and Celtic Park, you know you will be riding a rollercoaster. After coming back from two goals down, John Guidetti’s stoppage-time equaliser meant a 3-3 draw against Inter Milan and yet again raised the prospect of the mythical quadruple. But first Celtic have to hold off the threat of three away goals – at the San Siro. Bring it on.

And, by goodness, there was even more. Napoli missed a penalty but blitzed Trabzonspor 4-0. Holders Sevilla edged Moenchengladbach. Dynamo Moscow’s 100% run ended in a stalemate at Anderlecht. Unbeaten Salzburg’s wings were clipped 2-1 at Villarreal. Hulk lifted Zenit to victory at PSV. Roma and Feyenoord drew after a riot in Rome, and aBas Dost brace helped Wolfsburg beat Sporting, following that remarkable 5-4 Bundesliga victory at Leverkusen. Breathless stuff!

In contrast, the Champions League knock-out stages are more like pâté, and the embodiment of the lofty adage: “Form is temporary, class is permanent.” The calibre of the competitors suggested the first of these ties would be close, tactical encounters. And so it less excitingly proved.

Last weekend, PSG blew a two-goal lead against Caen to draw for the tenth time this season and stay third in Ligue Un. In England, Chelsea beat Everton to go seven points clear. Yet 1-1 it finished in Paris, the visitors scoring through their right-back with their only shot on target, and thanking goalkeeper Thibaut Courtois for maintaining that slender away-goal advantage.

In Ukraine, the result was more interesting than the attritional match – and that finished 0-0. Playing in Lviv, 600 miles from their war-torn home and for the first time competitively since December, Shakhtar Donetsk held off a muted ten-man Bayern Munich.

After squashing Hamburg 8-0 domestically, Pep Guardiola’s all stars couldn’t turn continental possession into profit. The “hosts” broke up play like road drills on an ice rink. The main storyline was the sending off of Xabi Alonso in his 100th Champions League game. Which tells you everything.

At Basel, the headlines went to the referee. Englishman Mark Clattenburg set this season’s tournament record by booking nine players, and eventually – correctly – ruling out a Porto equaliser before awarding them a late penalty. Which, incidentally, Danilo converted to cancel out Derlis Gonzalez’s early opener.

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So I have to thank Cristiano Ronaldo for livening up the first legs of this year’s Last 16. Like Marmite, love him or hate him, he makes an impression. After a much-highlighted three-game goal drought (snort), the world player of the year scored his 58th goal in 58 Champions League matches to put holders Real Madrid en route to a 2-0 win at Schalke.

In dramatic fashion, Roberto di Matteo’s side lost former Madrid striker Klaas-Jan Huntelaar to injury before the break yet rattled the woodwork after it through Felix Platte. But, with ten minutes left, Ronaldo fed Marcelo to wrap up Real’s tenth straight European victory, equalling Bayern’s record of 2013.

In the last decade, only Barcelona and Juventus have won by a two-goal margin in the Champions League at the Bernabeu. Schalke must do just that if they are to reach the quarter-finals for only the third time in their history. And James Rodriguez should be back for the hosts.

Now all that is something to savour. But I think Romelu’s romp, Guidetti’s goal and mustachioed Mario were this week’s top spread.

Read more from Kate Partridge here!

Follow @KatePartridge3

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