The last 16 stage of the Europa League could go down as the moment the fledgling competition came to prominence. One crazy Thursday night in March and suddenly the discussion didn’t centre on controversial kick-off times and additional referees, as the football did all the talking. From Fulham’s amazing comeback against Juventus to Werder Bremen and Valencia trading blows like two Super Middleweights fighting over a vacant world tite, this was the night UEFA’s new competition found its identity. Football fans across the continent will be hoping the quarter-final stage can provide more palatable servings as the race towards Hamburg intensifies.


Benfica vs Liverpool

Two of European football’s most illustrious names clash in this much anticipated quarter-final tie. Both sides were pitted against French opposition in the last round. A late Alan Kardec goal in the Stade Velodrome secured Benfica’s passage to the last eight as they beat Marseille 3-2 on aggregate. Liverpool had to turn around a 1-0 deficit from the first leg in Lille but eventually progressed through 3-1 on aggregate after Fernando Torres and Steven Gerrard led the way at Anfield.

The Portuguese league leaders have already faced Merseyside opposition in this season’s competition after they were placed in the same group as Everton. Ominously for The Reds, Diabos Vermelhos dominated both games, winning 5-0 in Lisbon and 2-0 at Goodison Park. Liverpool will certainly be hoping to fare much better than their local neighbours.

For The Reds, this competition represents their last opportunity to win silverware this season. It might not be the Champions League but European honours hold special significance for the red half of Merseyside, and triumph in this competition would be warmly received by the Anfield faithful hungry for success.

Predicting matches which involve Liverpool has become difficult this season as it depends on which Liverpool side turns up, but Rafael Benitez will be delighted the second leg will be played at Anfield in front of a roaring Kop. Despite this, the Premier League outfit need to ensure they are still in the game when they return to England.  As Everton discovered, Benfica at home in front of a passionate Estadio da Luz is a tricky proposition. 

Benfica’s main threat is likely to come from the much coveted Angel Di Maria who has been in exceptional form this term. The Argentine could give Glen Johnson a torrid night and the much maligned Dirk Kuyt’s industry on the right hand side of midfield could prove invaluable in nullifying the threat of the tricky winger. If Liverpool return from Portugal with the scores level or even no more than one goal down then they would stand a superb chance of progressing.

Fulham vs Wolfsburg

Neither of these sides can be written off after they both secured their place in the last eight in extraordinary circumstances during the last round. Fulham’s European adventure appeared to be all but over after they returned from Turin 3-1 down to Juventus, and in the return leg at Craven Cottage an early David Trezeguet goal appeared to be the final nail in the London club’s coffin. What followed will live long in the memory for every Fulham fan: After Zamora had provided Fulham a glimmer of hope, Fabio Cannavaro’s sending off changed the whole game, as the Premier League side ran riot and an audacious Clint Dempsey goal just minutes from time secured the Londoner’s passage to the quarter-finals 5-4 on aggregate.

Wolfsburg’s story from the last round starts in deepest Russia, away to Russian champions Rubin Kazan, where they picked up an admirable 1-1 draw in the first leg. Back in Germany it was another tight affair, finishing 1-1 after 90 minutes which resulted in extra time. With the game set to go to penalties Christian Gentner scored right at the death to send the Volkswagen Arena into pandemonium and Wolfsburg into the quarter-finals.

Roy Hodsgon’s experience of continental football has greatly benefited his team this season and after dispatching Shakhtar Donetsk and Juventus from the competition they won’t fear anyone. The old school feel of Craven Cottage on a crisp spring evening is likely to provide an intimating atmosphere for their Bundesliga opponents during the first leg.  Just like they did against Shakhtar Donetsk, expect Fulham to attack the visitors in search of a first leg lead to take to Germany.

Wolfsburg have the experience of their participation in this season’s Champions League to draw on, in addition, their striker force of Bosnian footballer of the year Edin Dzeko, Brazilian international Grafite and former Newcastle United and Inter Milan striker Obafemi Martins. This lineup is more than capable at the top level and will provide a challenge for the Fulham defence.

Expect the unexpected in this tie. It’s very difficult to pick a winner and it will also be impossible to write either side off in any given situation. Don’t be surprised if it goes all the way to penalties. 

Hamburg vs Standard Liege

Unlike Real Madrid, Hamburg are still in with a chance of winning a European trophy on their home ground this season. The Bundesliga side went through in thrilling fashion last time out, losing 4-3 away to Anderlecht in the second leg but still going through 6-5 on aggregate after winning the home leg 3-1. After seeing off the challenge of Anderlecht, Hamburg now faces another side from the Jupiler League: Standard Liege.

The Belgian champions booked their slot in the quarter-finals after disposing of Athens giants Panathinaikos 4-1 on aggregate in the last round. This included a shock 3-1 victory away in the Greek capital in the first leg.

With players such as Ruud van Nistelrooy within their ranks, Hamburg possess more big match experience than their opponents which could prove invaluable in a fixture with so much riding on it. On the other hand Standard Liege have progressed this far into the competition because they are a talented outfit, with much of their success in Europe centred on youthful exuberance led by the talented Steven Defour and it would be foolish to write them off.

With the second leg to be played in Liege’s noisy Stade Maurice Dufrasne, the Belgian side will be confident of causing an upset. Hamburg will require all their collective experience to cope with the boisterous Standard faithful and will be hoping to arrive in Belgium with a comfortable lead from the first leg.

Valencia vs Atletico Madrid

Two of La Liga’s more prominent names come head-to-head in this all Iberian battle. Valencia’s participation came about after their thrilling victory against Werder Bremen, with the Spanish side going through on the away goals rule 5-5 on aggregate. Atletico Madrid also benefited from the away goals rule, progressing 2-2 on aggregate against Sporting Lisbon.

On league form Valencia would be favourites, as Los Che are comfortably the best of the rest in Spain, lying in third behind the seemingly unstoppable Barcelona and Real Madrid. In comparison Atletico Madrid are frightfully inconsistent and currently lie in 10th position. Despite their inconsistencies however, the side from the capital has excellent big match pedigree, having beaten Barcelona this season and run bitter city rivals Real Madrid close recently, losing 3-2 at the Santiago Bernabeu. With players such as Sergio Aguero, Diego Forlan, Simao Sabrosa and Jose Antonio Reyes at their disposal, Atletico Madrid can understandably be a match for anyone. Unfortunately their defence more often than not is their downfall, and it is a problem that a succession of managers have failed to rectify.

In the shape of David Villa, Valencia possess a striker that will pose the Atletico defence all sorts of questions. Transfer speculation surrounding the Spanish international continues at pace and if this is to be his final season at the Mestalla he would love to leave the club at which his reputation has been built on the back of winning silverware.

Expect another tight game between two sides who will know each other’s strengths and weaknesses inside out. Interestingly, as both sides progressed from the last 16 stage on the away goals rule, both are evidently capable of scoring crucial goals away from home. As a result Valencia may hold the advantage with the pivotal second leg being played in Atletico’s Vicente Calderon stadium. 


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