Manchester City
AS Monaco
7:45 PM UTC
Leg 1
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Bayer Leverkusen
Atletico Madrid
7:45 PM UTC
Leg 1
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AS Nancy Lorraine
5:30 PM UTC
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Huddersfield Town
7:45 PM UTC
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Queens Park Rangers
Wigan Athletic
7:45 PM UTC
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Sheffield Wednesday
7:45 PM UTC
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Derby County
Burton Albion
7:45 PM UTC
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2:00 AM UTC Feb 22, 2017
Leg 1
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Europa League round of 16 draw

Europa League

One year from now...

Maybe I'm in the minority in this age of big domestic league action ruling the roost, but for me, there's something special about World Cup qualifying Saturdays.

I'm sure it has to do with the old cliché about variety being the spice of life. At any rate, you can't beat a whole day of international football that actually means a lot to so many different countries.

The three matches I got to see in their entirety at the weekend were Norway's meeting with Italy, Scotland's home game against Moldova, and the Portugal v Slovakia encounter.

Conditions at Oslo's Ulleval Stadium, damp and raw, seemed tailor-made for Norway's unabashed long ball. The Norwegians were entitled to feel better equipped than usual, to overcome the Group 5 leaders.

Italy, after all, were without Alessandro Nesta, Rino Gattuso and Francesco Totti. The azzurri team named by Marcello Lippi, including the error-prone Marco Materazzi, and the internationally inexperienced Fabio Grosso, Daniele Bonera and Daniele De Rossi, looked eminently beatable.

Norway were expecting fireworks from their emerging starlet, Kristofer Haestad, at twenty one, the creative force behind Start's unlikely rise to the top of the Tippeliga this season.

In the event, the youngster spent much of the game staring into the heavens, as the ball got lumped over his head from defence straight into attack, towards the towering figure of John Carew.

Initially, it looked as though this gambit might reap a hefty dividend against a static Italian side. As the game progressed however, a Norwegian goal appeared less and less likely. It was all just a bit too predictable, the kind of match in which you thought you were watching replays of the same thing over and over again.

The long throw was Norway's most used tactic. I lost count of the number of times Morten Gamst Pedersen, helped by local ball boys carrying towels to desiccate the wet ball, turned a throw-in into a de facto corner. Pedersen of Blackburn Rovers, was arguably Norway's best player against Italy, on a night that produced lots of honest endeavour, but little enterprise or guile.

Italy often disappoint on such occasions. Even without some of their top players, they surely had the wherewithal to put their superior technical qualities to good use. Instead, one got the distinct impression that preserving the parity was the full extent of azzuri ambitions.

The fact is the 0-0 draw at the Ulleval ensures Italy remain well in control of Group 5, while keeping Age Hareide's charges in the hunt for second spot.

When the draw was made, Scottish optimists (there aren't many of us these days) assumed Norway and Scotland would be the main challengers behind Italy. This line of thinking conveniently ignored Slovenia's excellent recent record in terms of qualifying for European Championships and World Cups.

That Italy, Norway, Slovenia and an improving Belarusian side were all ahead of Walter Smith's team before a ball was kicked on Saturday, said much about Scotland's current level.

With that in mind, Smith, ever the realist, knew Saturday's task against Moldova at Hampden, had more to do with restoring confidence than serving up stylish fare for the 45,000 in attendance. We're in no position to grumble about a 2-0 victory, Scotland's first competitive win for nineteen months, but no one can deny it was achieved the quintessentially Scottish way.

After playing decently, Scotland took the lead through Christian Dailly early in the second half. Mind you, the big West Ham defender owed much to the flapping antics of Moldovan goalkeeper Evgheni Hmaruc.

The rest of the game saw Scotland drop on the back foot, trying fruitlessly to withstand constant pressure from the visitors. It was jittery and uninspiring, and if truth be told, Moldova deserved an equaliser. Against the run of play however, James McFadden, who like Dailly had come on as a substitute, sealed a rare Scottish triumph with a well taken goal near the end.

Funnily enough, if Scotland can beat Belarus in Minsk on Wednesday, they would find themselves back in with an outside chance of finishing second in the group. I'm not holding my breath though!

The third match I watched took place at the sumptuous Stadium of Light in Lisbon, a top of the table clash in Group 3. Save for a bizarre 2-2 draw away to minnows Liechtenstein, Portugal have been nothing short of impressive in this section. There was a feeling though, that they might have met their match in Slovakia, who like the Portuguese, were unbeaten ahead of Saturday's showdown.

Such thoughts were dispelled thanks to an imperious display of Portuguese passing in the first half. Luis Figo returned from a short-lived international retirement to captain the side, and it looked as if he had never been away. Figo, Deco and Cristiano Ronaldo conducted the orchestra in accordance their own preferred rhythm. It was breathtaking stuff.

Marcello Lippi's men came away with a 0-0 draw in Norway.
Marcello Lippi's men came away with a 0-0 draw in Norway.

Portugal's reward came in the form of goals by Fernando Meira and Ronaldo, the latter an exquisite bending free-kick that goalkeeper Kamil Contofalsky had no chance of stopping.

The second half saw a similar pattern, but without any additions to the scoreline. Slovakia can consider themselves lucky to have limited the damage, although Marek Mintal, top scorer in the Bundesliga this past season, will still be kicking himself for missing from close range shortly before Meira's opening goal.

Portugal however, will surely win the section now, and neutrals must hope they do. They're too good not to be there, and it's high time they did themselves justice on the World Cup stage.

While we're on the subject of the World Cup finals, Germany 2006 is now just a year away, and I'm off to Frankfurt for the dress rehearsal, the FIFA Confederations Cup.

I'll look forward to talking to you again in a few weeks.

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