The high drama of the inaugural UEFA Europa League is set to continue in quarter-final ties featuring domestic rivals, European heavyweights and new kids on the block.
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The UEFA Europa League has been bubbling under all season but it erupted in spectacular style in the round of 16. Now, as domestic rivals, European heavyweights and new kids on the block vie for semi-final places, the action promises to get even hotter on Thursday.
The round of 16 second legs on 18 March had it all – twists, turns and no fewer than 34 goals – and an exhausting night ended with eight clubs still standing. Two were Spanish, Valencia CF and Club Atlético de Madrid, and the following day's draw pitted them together. For Valencia coach Unai Emery, "it at least ensured a Liga representative in the semi-finals", but his team will be tested at the Mestalla on 1 April.
The sides' head-to-head record since they first met in January 1935 suggests a close contest, yet mid-table Atlético have had the upper hand in the Liga this season. After they shared four goals at third-placed Valencia in September, it was one-way traffic at the Vicente Calderón a month ago as the hosts won 4-1 on a rare off day for David Villa.
Hearts were in mouths when the Spain forward suffered suspected concussion against Málaga CF in midweek. He should recover for the first leg and if Valencia – missing suspended midfielder Éver Banega – advance after the second instalment on 8 April, Villa could confront his international strike partner Fernando Torres and Liverpool FC in the semi-finals.
SL Benfica, though, will have plenty to say about that as they welcome the English club to the Estádio da Luz. The Portuguese Liga leaders have won their last three encounters with the five-time European champions and made light work of the Reds' rivals Everton in the group stage, winning 5-0 and 2-0. Yet on the two occasions these heavyweights have met in quarter-finals, Liverpool delivered the knockout blow – en route to lifting 1978 and 1984 European Champion Clubs' Cups.
Hamburger SV picked up the title in between times, in 1983, and the next obstacle in their path to May's final on home soil is an R. Standard de Liège team that overcame Panathinaikos FC last time out. HSV were pushed all the way by another Belgian side, RSC Anderlecht, in the last 16 and this has given Standard coach Dominique D'Onofrio confidence, even if he has Mohamed Sarr suspended. "After Anderlecht's match, it seems a winnable draw for us," he said.
The fourth quarter-final sees Fulham FC entertain VfL Wolfsburg in west London – two clubs enjoying best-ever seasons in UEFA competition. The German titleholders gave Manchester United FC a scare in the UEFA Champions League group stage before losing 2-1 at Old Trafford, but have a tough proposition in a Fulham team undefeated at home in Europe. Their 4-1 triumph over Juventus made it 14 games unbeaten as hosts, although, as the last round showed, no one can rest easy in the UEFA Europa League.