The last 16 of the Europa League kicked off on Thursday, with the back door to the Champions League group stages next season one step closer for some clubs who might otherwise find qualification through the league a bit more tricky. But more importantly, it's a chance for some silverware. Am I right? That's the main reward yes? Hmm...
The early game that I watched was Eintracht Frankfurt v Internazionale. I was not convinced that Inter were favourites for this, I like what Frankfurt have been doing and they have the kind of momentum that sees a club reach the latter stages of the Europa League, a bit like Salzburg from last season. To be fair, Inter should have gone ahead after they won a penalty, and I can't believe I'm going to say this, but the referee got it right. The ref in question? Willie Collum. But Kevin Trapp, on loan from Paris Saint Germain (boy could they have done with a reliable goalkeeper on Wednesday) saved the spot kick from Brozovic, and in the end a 0-0 draw would see the tie on a knife edge going into next Thursday at the San Siro.
The rest of the early games all turned out to be shocks in some way. Dinamo Zagreb got a 1-0 win at home to Benfica. To be fair I did say that I fancied Zagreb overall, but I still see that as surprising. Sevilla (who have been on a major slump domestically) drew 2-2 at home against Slavia Prague, the Czech side have the advantage at the half way point. Villarreal somehow beat Zenit in Russia 3-1. I can't quite comprehend how they are doing so well on the continent but look in real trouble to get relegated in Spain. It still wouldn't surprise me if Zenit turn that around in Spain. And Rennes are very much in the driving seat against Arsenal, and if you watched that game, how good is Ismaila Sarr!?
The later games were more conclusive in the main. Chelsea and Napoli got 3-0 home victories over Dynamo Kyiv and Red Bull Salzburg respectively. Might this be a sign that these two sides may make the final? Imagine that, Sarri v Napoli in Baku. Valencia were 2-0 up over Krasnodar at the Mestalla but a goal for the Russians makes the reverse fixture one to keep an eye on. It all makes for a rather interesting build up to the games next week, and it looks like the Europa League will be just as unpredictable as its bigger more lucrative brother.
There are no stand out games being played on the Saturday strangely. If you wanted to however, stick Chievo v AC Milan on at half 7 on Premier 1 and you will likely see a barrel load of goals from my new man crush Krzysztof Piatek, he's just so bloody good!
On the Sunday you have a few options. At half 12 you can go uber staunch and support HSV Hamburg in their away clash with St Pauli in the 2. Bundesliga. That game is on BT Sport ESPN. The late games are what really catch the eye, and it's up to you which game takes your fancy most. Fiorentina take on Lazio at 19:30 on Freesports. Lazio will be on a high having thumped Roma 3-0 in the Derby last weekend, and will be hoping to build on that momentum to start climbing up the Serie A once again. In their way, the Viola continue to look an attractive side, but are they too young and weak to really cause major problems to the Biancocelesti? Real Vallodolid are certainly in the relegation picture in Spain, so what they really need is an easy home tie against a side who are all over the place. Luckily for the club from Castile-y-León, they host Real Madrid, who crashed out of all competitions in the space of a week, all at home too. If ever there was a time for the club owned by Ronaldo (R9) to pull themselves into a safer position, now is the time. That game is on Premier 1 at quarter to 8. And at 8 on BT Sport 1, a derby brought to you from the south of France, where Marseille host Nice. If there was ever a need for more incentive to watch an already hotly contested tie, Balotelli going up against his old club whom he couldn't score for in the first half of the season, but is on a hot streak now for Marseille. Narrative Klaxon!!
As always, happy watching!