Finally the Europa League is getting good, with the trophy coming into view the competition is getting fierce. Here’s what to watch out for at the quarter-final stage:
Valencia’s Young Stars
Since Juan Antonio Pizzi took charge of Valencia in January, their youth players have come to prominence. Paco Alcacer, Fede and Juan Bernat have all become major players in the Valencia team. And with La Liga seeming a closed route in terms of gaining qualification for Europe next season, Valencia should give the Europa League a real go. For a club with no real success over the last few years, the Europa League would present an excellent respite for their players and fans.
Since returning to Porto in January, Quaresma has shown flashes of the brilliance that made him Portugal’s next big thing during his time with Sporting Lisbon. His goal in the 2nd leg against Napoli paid homage to Ronaldo comparisons that were made early in his career as he dribbled into the box and rifled a thunderous effort past Pepe Reina.
For Quaresma, the Europa League is a big opportunity for him to prove he is good enough to go to Brazil with Portugal. Especially given the Portuguese League is already lost, the Europa League is his biggest chance to prove his worth and force his way onto the plane to Brazil.
Sevilla are looking more like a side that has won two European trophies in the last ten years with their form in recent weeks. After winning five on the bounce in the league they are in contention for the final Champions League spot in La Liga only if it is a slim chance.
They certainly have the ability to win the Europa League, with arguably one of the best midfielders in the competition in the form of Ivan Rakitic. The Croatian has been superb this season as a creative force and he has been almost equal to that of his compatriot Luka Modric. His skills were shown in their full light in the recent win over Real Madrid with an excellent bit of skill to create the winner for Carlos Bacca.
Sevilla’s team isn’t only Rakitic, Carlos Bacca provides them with an interesting dynamism up front and on-loan midfielder Stephane Mbia gives them strong cover in front of the back four. Given Sevilla’s pedigree in the competition, they are the team to watch in the last eight.
The Serbs in the Benfica side are key to their success in both the league and Europe. They may have let Nemanja Matic leave, but the others are still essential to Jorge Jesus’s side.
Ljubomir Fejsa, Miralem Sulejmani, Filip Duricic and Lazar Markovic have all been commendable since signing in the summer for the Portuguese club. Especially Markovic, the 19-year-old has earned rave reviews since joining from Partizan with his fearless wing play. He is certainly one of the best young players left in the competition.
His free-kick against Fiorentina which sent Juventus to this stage was a joy to watch and it proved that he still has lot to offer for Juventus. He may not break into full stride at all, but his ability to slow the game down and bring it to his own pace is there for everyone to see.
If Juventus are to make the final in their own stadium, Andrea Pirlo will be one of the major players in their route there. They say that midfield wins you games, that rings true in European football and as long as Juventus have Pirlo, they are the best equipped to win the competition.
Excitement Rivaling the Champions League
Looking at the sides left in the competition it is arguably one of its strongest fields since the tournament was re-branded the Europa League in 2009. Boasting some of Europe’s most historic clubs and most successful clubs, it has the ability to rival the Champions League.
There is an argument to say that the ties are less clear than the Champions League. While we all know Manchester United and Borussia Dortmund are likely to be heading out, it’s all bit foggy about who will heading out in the Europa League. The only really clear cut game is Benfica v AZ.