First leg of the quarterfinal round of Champions League’s poor cousin, the less prestigious UEFA Cup – now called Europa League – featured four good matches this week, as the competition reaches its crescent. All tightly contested encounters and all but one ended 2-1 in favor of the home team. The away teams fared well coming home with the precious away goals, but everything will be decided next week.
Liverpool missed an opportunity to come home from Lisbon with a better result, after starting the match strongly and going ahead on a perfectly executed set piece finished by Danny Agger. The outcome was diminished by Ryan Babel’s silly dismissal so early in the match, but Liverpool must feel confident going into the second leg at home. Babel later acknowledged being surprised about the send-off, lesson learned. Benfica’s fight back put them in a good position to qualify with a tie at Anfield. Benfica’s Oscar Cardozo looks fantastic, an excellent #9 and a great target for Argentine midfielders Aimar and Angel di Maria. It should be a great game and the best team on the day will go through.
Hamburg also battled back from a goal down at home to get past Standard Liege by the same 2-1 score. An uncomfortable margin, but nevertheless one that places the Germans closer to the semis. Van Nistelrooy was one of the protagonists on the night and seems to be far from done. Both teams looked impressive but Hamburg holds the edge in several respects. However, anything can happen in Liege in the return leg.
Now languishing in the Premiership with no European place to hope for next year, Roy Hodgson put all of the focus into this competition and rested key players in the 2-0 loss to Hull last week-end, to the utter dismay of West Ham United. Fulham produced one more night of European magic for the west London faithful at Craven Cottage, but from the looks of it the Cinderella story is approaching an end. A great night from Damien Duff propelled Fulham to an improbable two goal edge, a lead they took into the 89th minute. At the end of the match the Germans finally capitalized on one of their chances, deservedly so, and changed the dynamic of the second leg. Wolfsburg must be favorite to reach the semifinals against a tired Fulham team that can be proud of its long run and of taking out Juventus along the way.
The two Spanish clubs left in the competition were drawn against each other, which is a bit strange to their supporters as the international element is removed. Atletico travelled to Valencia for the first leg and came a way with a positive result after twice going ahead. David Villa evened the match near the end. Atletico could have dreamed for more, but deserved no more. For all of the shortcomings and inconsistencies of the season, very much like Liverpool, the talented Colchonerros can end up in the semis. But Valencia is loaded with great players and on any given night can produce an explosive offensive outburst. Everything will be decided at the Calderon.