Holders Club Atlético de Madrid and Juventus are out, SSC Napoli and dramatic comebacks are definitely in – UEFA.com picks a few highlights from the UEFA Europa League group stage.
Given the sheer weight of 144 matches and 390 goals in the UEFA Europa League, digesting them all in one sitting is a difficult task. UEFA.com picks out a few choice morsels to chew on at the end of the 2010/11 group stage.
There will be a new UEFA Europa League winner this season after holders Club Atlético de Madrid failed to make it over their first hurdle, finishing third in Group B. They never recovered from a first-night defeat at Aris Thessaloniki FC and a home loss to the Greek side on Matchday 5 all but sealed their fate, Nikos Lazaridis's late goal earning the visitors a famous 3-2 win. It left Atlético needing to beat section winners Bayer 04 Leverkusen and hope that Aris, unbeaten in 25 European home games slipped up against Rosenborg BK – neither happened.
Other recent winners fared better, with 2008 UEFA Cup victors FC Zenit St Petersburg the only side to advance with a 100% record. Domestic rivals PFC CSKA Moskva, who lifted the trophy in 2005, might have shared that honour but took their foot off the gas against AC Sparta Praha, drawing 1-1 on Matchday 6. They nevertheless remain one of eight unbeaten sides, along with Zenit, FC Porto, Paris Saint-Germain FC, Liverpool FC, PSV Eindhoven, Leverkusen and a Juventus side who bowed out after becoming only the second side to draw all six games in a UEFA club comeptition group stage.
Expect the unexpected
SSC Napoli proved to be masters of the dramatic comeback. The Partenopei came from 3-1 down to draw at FC Utrecht but denied FC Steaua Bucureşti in even more dramatic fashion on Matchday 2. Marius Lăcătuş's men raced into a 3-0 lead inside 16 minutes, then had a player sent off, and Napoli slowly but surely recovered the situation, Edinson Cavani making it 3-3 in the 98th minute. The Uruguayan repeated the dose deep into added time on Matchday 6 as the Italian side whipped a last-32 spot out from under Steaua.
Napoli have not had a monopoly on 3-3 draws. Swiss second division side FC Lausanne-Sport shared six goals at Sparta while a hat-trick from Artjoms Rudņevs earned visitors KKS Lech Poznań a share of the spoils against Juventus. The 22-year-old drew widespread plaudits, strengthening his burgeoning reputation with another goal when the sides drew again on Matchday 5. It sent Lech through at Juve's expense but team-mate Semir Štilić, whose corner provided Rudņevs' goal in Poznan, was not satisfied: "Artjoms hasn't thanked me for my cross yet but I expect some sort of reward – I think a nice cake would do it."
Eight years ago a studious, up-and-coming Portuguese coach announced himself by guiding FC Porto to UEFA Cup glory, a 3-2 victory over Celtic FC completing the treble. José Mourinho has not done bad for himself since then. Protege André Villas-Boas baulks at any comparison but the 33-year-old has had a dream start to life at the Dragão since his June appointment, leading Porto back to the Liga summit and through to the UEFA Europa League knockout stages unbeaten. Having the group stage's leading scorer, seven-goal Falcao, has helped.
Change for the better, change for the worse
Staying with coaches, seven clubs brought in new ones during the group stage and four advanced nonetheless. Sevilla FC, VfB Stuttgart, FC Dynamo Kyiv and PAOK FC all overcame autumnal blues and domestic strife to extend their European campaigns into the new year. Of the three newcomers whose sides fell by the wayside, Steaua's Lăcătuş had the most unfortunate of circumstances, while Manuel Jiménez's AEK Athens FC missed out on head-to-head countback. Milen Radukanov, the fifth man to lead PFC CSKA Sofia this year, guided a previously point-less side to a 2-1 win at SK Rapid Wien in his first European outing.
With over 100 matches in UEFA club competition to his name, Steven Gerrard needs no introduction but, regardless of how often he does it, his ability to orchestrate a Liverpool FC Lazarus act confounds belief. The Reds' halting campaign looked set for permanent derailment as they trailed Napoli 1-0 at half-time at Anfield; on came the skipper for his only appearance in Group K. Forty-five minutes later he took his bow with the match ball under his arm, a hat-trick all but sealing his side's progress. Expect to see more of him in the new year.