Even though there is no English interest in the Champions League, the same cannot be said of the Europa League where there are three teams battling to make the final at the Amsterdam Arena on May 15th. All the English teams face tough tasks though, and the draw has conjured up four ties between teams that have never met before.
Chelsea v Rubin Kazan
Whilst Chelsea may have been installed as bookmakers favourites following the draw they take a step into the unknown against the Russian outfit. Chelsea have been far from convincing in Europe this season, crashing out of the Champions League as holders at the group stage and then scraping past Sparta Prague and Steaua Bucharest in the first two rounds of this competition. Rubin meanwhile have been mightily impressive in getting to this stage. They topped their group ahead of Inter Milan who they thumped 3-0 at home. They then followed that by knocking out the holders Atletico Madrid 2-1 on aggregate, which included a 2-0 victory in the Vicente Calderon.
Rubin have a mixture of nationalities in their squad including their danger man, the Venezuelan striker Jose Rondon who has scored five goals in the competition so far. While he is their main threat up front Rubin also have a solid backline, which has only conceded four goals in their 10 games so far and two of those came in the first group game away at Inter. Make no mistake; this is a massive test for Chelsea, and with the away leg coming second the Blues may need a couple of goals advantage to take to Russia. These two games also come in a spell of six games in 16 days for Chelsea and all that may add up to a shock in this tie.
Tottenham Hotspur v FC Basel
The easiest looking tie for the English clubs on paper begins at White Hart Lane as Spurs take on the rank outsiders FC Basel. Tottenham cruised through their group as runners-up behind Lazio and have then fought their way through two tough ties against Lyon thanks to a late Mousa Dembele goal and against Inter Milan on away goals. Basel started the season in the Champions League but lost out to Cluj in the final play-off round. Having dropped into the Europa League they finished second in a weak group behind Genk before seeing off Ukrainian minnows Dnipro. They were impressive in the last round though, knocking out Liverpool’s conquerors Zenit 2-1 on aggregate.
Basel have a good blend of youth and experience with the Swiss pairing of Marco Streller and Alex Frei still scoring goals at this level. Over two legs though Spurs will surely be a class above and if Inter Milan struggled to contain the likes of Gareth Bale then it is hard to see how the Swiss will fare any better. Being at home first does make things harder for Tottenham as they have not been too convincing away from home thus far, but they will surely be too far ahead after the first leg for it to make a difference.
Fenerbahce v Lazio
The only tie that does not contain an English team but it is still very tough to call. Fenerbahce are another team who came down from the Champions League after losing their play-off to Spartak Moscow. Their path through the group stage was easy enough finishing top of their pool, however during the knockout rounds they have been unconvincing in getting past Bate 1-0 on aggregate and Plzen 2-1 over the two games. Lazio have been much more impressive, topping the group ahead of Spurs and then scoring five times in each of their knockout rounds against Borussia Monchengladbach and Stuttgart.
Both sides have a lot of experience running through their teams. Lazio have the likes of Miroslav Klose and Lorik Cana while Fenerbahce have some well-known faces in the form of Joseph Yobo, Raul Meireles and Dirk Kuyt. Lazio may well just have the edge in this tie though through their goal threat. They have the Czech striker Libor Kozak who has managed eight goals in eight games so far and the unpredictable Mauro Zarate. With Lazio at home second they have to be favourites and will have too much firepower for an unspectacular Fenerbahce side.
Benfica v Newcastle United
The final tie should be an absolute cracker as Portuguese heavyweights Benfica take on Newcastle. Newcastle have been solid if unspectacular so far, coming second in their group behind Bordeaux and then going through 1-0 on aggregate in both knockout rounds against tricky opposition in the shape of Metalist Kharkiv and Anzhi Makhachkala. Benfica are another team that dropped out of the Champions League, finishing third in their group behind Celtic and Barcelona despite a creditable 0-0 draw at Camp Nou. They have won every game in the Europa League so far though beating both Bayer Leverkusen and Bordeaux home and away.
Benfica’s main threat is of course their goal machine Oscar Cardozo who already has three in four games in this competition. They also have exciting young midfielders in Nicolas Gaitan and Nemanja Matic and the experience at the back with Luisao and Ezequiel Garay. Newcastle could not have wished for a tougher task and a lot will depend on how their young team cope with the intimidating atmosphere in Lisbon in the first leg. If Newcastle can continue their solid defensive form then they may give themselves a chance of a special European night at St James Park in the return game.
By Chris Newman