The inaugural UEFA Europa League group stage is shaping up with the likes of Villarreal CF, AS Roma and FC Basel 1893 all baring their attacking teeth as the play-off round concluded.
Villarreal overwhelmed NAC Breda at El Madrigal, a 6-1 triumph completing a 9-2 aggregate win. Roma, meanwhile, atoned for last week's 3-3 draw away to MFK Košice with a 7-1 win at home, Francesco Totti scoring twice in the first ten minutes on the way to claiming a hat-trick. Basel, meanwhile, took a scythe to Azerbaijan's FK Bakı, with a 5-1 win at St. Jakob-Park completing an 8-2 overall success.
The strength of the competition was underlined by the fact that 2008 UEFA Cup winners FC Zenit St. Petersburg will not be in Friday's group-stage draw, after the Russian side drew 1-1 at home to CD Nacional, sending the Madeira-based side through courtesy of a 4-3 first-leg victory. May's winners FC Shakhtar Donetsk will be there having rounded off a 5-0 aggregate win against Sivasspor on Tuesday, the game brought forward because of their UEFA Super Cup fixture against FC Barcelona.
Villa go out
Aston Villa FC unexpectedly found their path to the group stage blocked. A goal down from the first leg against SK Rapid Wien, a James Milner penalty and John Carew strike put them 2-0 up at home only for Nikica Jelavić to hit back 14 minutes from time, turning the tie decisively in the Austrian side's favour on away goals. The same rule also worked in SC Heerenveen's favour as a 0-0 draw at home saw them get maximum value for the goal they scored in a 1-1 tie at PAOK FC last week.
In other close-run ties, FK Austria Wien got the better of FC Metalurh Donetsk thanks to Emin Sulimani's extra-time effort after both legs of their tie ended 2-2 after 90 minutes. Club Brugge KV beat Lech Poznań 4-3 on penalties after trading 1-0 home wins. UEFA Champions League group-stage contenders last year, FC BATE Borisov staged a stunning comeback at PFC Litex Lovech. Trailing 1-0 from the home leg, the Belarussians levelled late on through Sergei Sosnovski, the same player scoring again in extra time along with Vitali Rodionov and Maksim Skavysh to win 4-0 in Bulgaria, 4-1 on aggregate
The biggest drama of all came in the Czech Republic. Awarded a 3-0 default win after the away leg of their tie against FC Dinamo 1948 Bucureşti was abandoned to to crowd trouble, FC Slovan Liberec had one foot in the group stage but Andrei Cristea's early goal put doubt in their minds, with substitute Marius Niculae striking twice after the break to send the game into extra time and then penalties, with the Romanian side prevailing 9-8. They will hope their luck does not desert them in Friday's group-stage draw in Monaco, which takes place at 12.45CET.
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