Europa League Round-up: The Fight For The Last 16

posted 27 Feb 2013, 15:02 by Richard Brook   [ updated 27 Feb 2013, 15:12 ]
Originally posted here:

It was a roller coaster of a night for British clubs involved in the fight to reach the last 16 of the Europa League. It ended with three of the four clubs making it through, albeit some left it late, with the fourth coming so close. The two early kick-off fixtures began with Tottenham Hotspur seeking to defend the slender 2-1 advantage over Lyon, that a brace of Gareth Bale free-kicks had supplied from the first leg. Meanwhile Newcastle found themselves looking to build on a goalless draw at home, with Metalist Kharkiv during which they spurned several chances, and saw two Papiss Cisse goals chalked off thanks to the flag of the assistant referee.

In Lyon, Tottenham came perilously close to exiting the competition, but the French side must be cursing their inability to close out a half during the course of the two-legged tie. A week ago Bale's free-kicks came right at the death of each half; tonight a stunning injury time leveller from Mousa Dembele denied Lyon a win on away goals and sent Tottenham through.

The picture had looked very different as Lyon opened the scoring after just 17 minutes. Maxime Gonalons planting a near post header into the net beyond the despairing dive of Brad Friedel, thanks to an inch perfect cross supplied by Clement Grenier, from a free-kick. Lyon had started liveliest and already gone close before the goal.

As the half wore on Tottenham began to get a foothold and Lewis Holtby came close to turning the tie on its head as his long range effort came back off the post. In the second half Bale went within inches as he volleyed Adebayor's looped cross, and you wondered if it was going to be Spurs' night.

Tottenham rightly survived an appeal for a penalty against Friedel, before Clint Dempsey wasted a headed opportunity with just 15 minutes remaining. Just as it appeared Spurs' hopes were over, up stepped Dembele to belt the ball low, and from distance passed Remy Vercoutre to fire Tottenham into the last 16.

Meanwhile in Ukraine a penalty from Shola Ameobi mid-way through the second half secured safe passage for Newcastle United. Newcastle might have already had the lead as Papiss Cisse blew two excellent first half chances to settle the nerves, with Kharkiv's first leg hero, goalkeeper Olexandr Goryainov on hand to spoil the party again. Cisse's first effort after 12 minutes was tame, but just before the break a neat one-two with Ameobi led to a strike that was parried to safety by the Kharkiv keeper.

It was Goryainov that conceded the 64th minute penalty, though as Cisse latched on to a poor back pass, caught the striker with a late sliding challenge. Ameobi stepped up for the spot-kick, sending the keeper the wrong way to score.

Metalist were stirred into action, to try and rekindle their hopes of advancing and drew saves from Tim Krul in the Newcastle goal. The Dutch keeper sprang into action to deny Willian and reacted twice in quick succession to keep out Cristaldo. Defender James Perch also turned hero with a crucial block to prevent a Jaja equaliser from six yards.

In the two late kick off's Chelsea went into the tie at Stamford Bridge against Sparta Prague one goal to the good, in that awkward position of having an away goal that effectively counts for nothing, as if the tie is levelled it means the opposition have an away goal too. Liverpool began their clash with Zenit St. Petersburg at Anfield, with nothing to lose after a disastrous 2-0 defeat in the first leg a week ago.

Chelsea proved there is more than one London club capable of a late, late show as Eden Hazard scored an injury time winner to prevent their tie against Sparta heading for extra-time and the possibility of penalties. It was yet another evening for nightmarish misses from Fernando Torres, who in truth could have settled the tie, before the visitors levelled it. The Spaniard side-footed wide in the opening minutes, and then contrived to miss from inside the six yard box.

Sparta made the most of the let-off and exposed Chelsea with a quick free-kick on 17 minutes, from which Vaclav Kadlec pulled the ball back for David Lafata to finish high into the net.

The goal seemed to rouse Chelsea with Mata forcing the Sparta keeper to touch his shot over, following a neat flick, and Torres diving for a header that cleared the crossbar. The Londoners continued to probe after the break as Ramires hit the post, and Terry saw his improvised finish saved by Vaclik.

There were chances at both ends as the visitors seemed to take confidence from Chelsea's failure to convert, notably Ramires who volleyed the ball on target but was unfortunate to see his shot hit team-mate Torres. In the dying seconds Hazard worked his way into the penalty area, and hit one unstoppable shot beyond Vaclik to send the Czech side out.

Liverpool produced an incredibly spirited performance to come within one goal of continuing their European adventure, despite gifting the first goal of the night to the visitors making their already difficult second-leg task, nigh impossible.

Football can be a cruel sport at times and it was undoubtedly harsh on loyal club servant Jamie Carragher, as what transpired to be his last ever European match for the club saw the scoring opened due to his error. Carragher's scuffed back-pass was seized upon gratefully by Brazilian forward Hulk, who chased through and slotted the ball under Pepe Reina.

Liverpool were left needing four goals without reply to resurrect their hopes. The contest was re-established just nine minutes later, as Daniel Agger was scythed down in unfamiliar territory on the edge of Zenit's box. Suarez struck the resulting free-kick well enough but the Russians will be disappointed that the ball found a path through the wall and in to the goal.

Liverpool had the advantage of being able to throw caution to the wind and wave after wave of attack, left Zenit rocked and Anfield rocking and just before the half-time Joe Allen latched on to the rebound from his own header to ram the ball home, leaving Liverpool needing two to win.

A second-half penalty shout for handball will leave Liverpool feeling aggrieved that the spot-kick was not awarded. On the hour, Liverpool got their third from another Suarez free-kick from a central position. Suarez curved his free-kick from a seemingly impossible width around the wall, placing it with absolute precision just inside Malafeev's left hand post.

Gerrard, Shelvey and Suarez, with a third free-kick, all went close as Liverpool pressed to advance, but Zenit held out and went through thanks to Hulk's away goal.

And so ended a good night for the British clubs in the Europa League. Three of our four sides advanced to the last 16, although Liverpool's status as gallant losers in a fantastic game for the neutral will be small comfort to their supporters. For those who have made it through the last 16 ties will pit Tottenham against Inter Milan, Newcastle with Anzhi Makhachkala and Chelsea will face Steaua Bucharest.