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Mar 10, 2010

Europa League strikes back

Like the new kid in class, the Europa League has received more than its fair share of sly digs and rough treatment in its first year. Worse still, it's being held responsible for the perceived sins of its predecessor, the UEFA Cup, with its first-three-qualify group stage of questionable quality. Few are willing to wait and see how the new format pans out, with the majority only interested in finding the nearest stick to beat it with.

But this week might just be when the Europa League strikes back. The last-16 is replete with a plethora of eye-catching ties, including sides with recent Champions League experience. For starters, both of Spain's remaining hopefuls face testing clashes against sides who, like them, are more used to dining at European football's top table.

The Champions League provided Atletico Madrid with no respite from a miserable opening to the season, which saw Abel Resino fired as coach. Abel finally went on October 23 after weeks of speculation, and two days after a 4-0 hammering by Chelsea at Stamford Bridge, a result which left Atleti goalless and with a single point halfway through the group stage.

Resino's replacement Quique Sanchez Flores couldn't mastermind any miraculous recovery, though the side did scrape a Europa League slot. Flores, a very capable coach, has done as much as the volatile situation at the Vicente Calderon has allowed him to. His side have pulled clear of relegation danger in the league without threatening the European places, but have reached the Copa del Rey final, where they will face Sevilla, and qualified for the last-16 in Europe with a fine away win over Galatasaray, another unpredictable side with lavish attacking talents.

When Atleti click in the final third there's no stopping them, as Barcelona recently found out when suffering their first league defeat of the season. The steady improvement of the side under Flores has been due to better balance in midfield. January loan signing Tiago helps to knit play together, while Flores got the best out of Jose Antonio Reyes at Benfica and has again worked his magic with the Andalucian winger. So long had Reyes been separated from his best form that many assumed it had gone forever.

Their opponents Sporting are also enjoying a mini-revival, and it was kicked off in this very competition. Miguel Veloso's late penalty away to Everton in the first leg of the previous round gave Carlos Carvalhal's men a much-needed lifeline, and has proved a turning point. Sporting put the English side to the sword in the return in Lisbon in their most confident display of the season to date, before hammering champions Porto three days later.

The Europa League is a definite target for Sporting - in fact their only target, offering meaning to what in truth has been a pretty shambolic season. The seeds of Paulo Bento's downfall as coach were sown by pallid showings against the giants of Barcelona and Bayern in the Champions League, but the unfancied Carvalhal has a great chance to make a name for himself in its little brother tournament. It may not mean much to some but Sporting have unfinished business, having lost the 2005 UEFA Cup final to CSKA Moscow in their own Jose Alvalade stadium. This was part of a nightmare week for the club, which saw them lose the league to Benfica in a decisive derby and slip out of the automatic Champions League places, ultimately leading to the departure of Bento's predecessor, Jose Peseiro.

Valencia's tie with Werder Bremen conjures its own memories of mid-decade misery for the Mestalla club. The two sides met in the group stage of the Champions League in 2004, both champions of their respective domestic leagues. The Spaniards had seen Rafa Benítez resign as coach and move onto Liverpool. His own European exploits in his debut season at Anfield would later serve to underline the chaos which had quickly enveloped his former club.

Claudio Ranieri arrived for his second spell at Valencia in credit for the dignity with which he managed his final season at Chelsea - a season which saw the club attain their highest league position for 41 years and reach the Champions League semi-finals. However, it soon became clear to him that Valencia's own barometer of success had rocketed in his absence, while fans and players who had been used to success quickly turned against the coach. Ranieri's knowingly bumbling foreigner act that so beguiled the English media left their Spanish counterparts utterly nonplussed. That four of his five major signings were Italian only served to isolate him further.

Though the coach wasn't actually sacked until February 2005, Werder's December visit all but sealed his fate. A dogged performance came to nothing as Valencia were eliminated by Nelson Haedo Valdez's late brace for the visitors, and the night ended in disgrace as Miguel Angulo was sent off for a horrible studs-up challenge before springing to his feet to spit in Tim Borowski's face, leaving the field to a hail of debris from the stands as the faithful took out their ire on the match officials.

While this arguably marked the start of Valencia's well-documented recent problems, Werder haven't hit the heights since either. The travelling supporters who applauded coach Thomas Schaaf and his men into Valencia airport the day after that win in 2004 recognised a team punching above their weight, and were enjoying great times while they lasted. Last year's German Cup win, coupled with an appearance in the final UEFA Cup final, are their best achievements since. Werder have remained stable, as per their image as a modest, well-run club.

Schaaf - in charge for almost 11 years - is still the boss and is in the process of building a side without the talismanic Diego (who left for Juventus), just as he rebuilt when the 2004 championship side (including the excellent Ailton and Johan Micoud) began to disperse.

Good subplots, redemption and history are worthy ingredients of any cup competition. The third element might be a work in progress as far as the Europa League is concerned, but the first two should ensure that we have an entertaining extended night of action ahead of us.

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