Valentine's Day treat for football lovers
Friday, February 1, 2013
The UEFA Europa League round of 32 kicks off on 14 February, with holders Club Atlético de Madrid, European champions Chelsea FC and birthday boy Edinson Cavani in the spotlight.
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Club Atlético de Madrid are still on course for back-to-back titles, while Chelsea FC begin their bid for a notable continental treble as the UEFA Europa League resumes with the round of 32.
Winners in 2009/10 and 2011/12, Atlético are looking to become only the third side to collect this trophy two years in a row, after Liga rivals Real Madrid CF and Sevilla FC. Their next obstacle is FC Rubin Kazan, but in Falcao they have a man who knows the competition inside out. Already joint second in the all-time UEFA Cup/UEFA Europa League scoring chart with 30 goals, Atlético's Colombia striker can also become the first player to lift the trophy in three successive seasons, having started his winning streak with FC Porto in 2010/11.
Falcao has yet to appear in this term's competition, and in his absence SSC Napoli forward Edinson Cavani has been stealing the headlines. The Uruguayan international scored more goals (seven) and had more shots on target (13) than any other player in the group stage, and has further cause to look forward to his team's opener against FC Viktoria Plzeň. He celebrates his 26th birthday on Valentine's Day – when all the first legs are scheduled to kick off.
Eliminated despite being the UEFA Champions League group stage's 16-goal leading marksmen, European champions Chelsea face AC Sparta Praha, goalkeeper Petr Čech's old club. Should they go on to triumph in Amsterdam in May they would be just the fourth side to complete a clean sweep of UEFA's three top club competitions – UEFA Cup/UEFA Europa League, European Cup and UEFA Cup Winners' Cup – following in the wake of Juventus, AFC Ajax and FC Bayern München.
Chelsea boss Rafael Benítez, meanwhile, can win the tournament for a second time, having done so with Valencia CF in 2003/04. Victorious with Porto in 2009/10, André Villas-Boas is also targeting a second success as his Tottenham Hotspur FC team take on Olympique Lyonnais, Spurs goalkeeper Hugo Lloris's former employers. Meanwhile Juande Ramos, whose Sevilla FC side prevailed in 2006 and 2007, wants to join Giovanni Trapattoni as only the second coach to pick up three winners' medals as he leads FC Dnipro Dnipropetrovsk against FC Basel 1893.
As if further intrigue were needed, AFC Ajax play FC Steaua Bucureşti seeking ultimately to reach the final in their own home stadium, with the drama concluding at the Amsterdam ArenA on 15 May.