5th April, 2012
Three Spanish clubs will today seek to reach the UEFA Europa League semi-finals and build on the impression that while their country is in a financial crisis their football fortunes are in rude health.
Athletic Bilbao should progress at home having won 4-2 away against German side Schalke 04 last week while 2010 winners Atletico Madrid hold a 2-1 lead as they travel to German side Hanover while Valencia host AZ Alkmaar having lost 2-1 in the first leg.
Sporting Lisbon will be bidding to make it an all-Iberian quartet in the semis as they take a 2-1 lead to Ukraine side Metalist Kharkiv.
The size of the task facing last season’s UEFA Champions League semi-finalists Schalke is illustrated by the fact that Athletic Bilbao have only ever lost 3-0 once in European competition – to another Bundesliga side Werder Bremen in 2009.
Both sides failed to win at the weekend, Bilbao losing 2-0 to Barcelona while Schalke had to rely on an 80th minute penalty by Klaas-Jan Huntelaar to force a 1-1 draw with Hoffenheim.
The German side will be looking to the in-form Dutch star for an early goal today and maintain his rich vein of scoring form that has seen him net 23 in the Bundesliga this term.
However, Athletic will be encouraged they can also score several more goals with the visitors probably forced to play fourth choice goalkeeper Mathias Schober, as number one Timo Hildebrand was injured in the first leg and the other two goalkeepers are on their way back from injury.
The hosts’ leading striker Fernando Llorente has warned his team-mates that they would be foolish to already be thinking of the semi-finals where they will play either Sporting or Metalist.
“We can’t get carried away and relax,” he said. “We know they have players who can be very dangerous in midfield and attack with Raul, Huntelaar and (Jefferson) Farfan) for example. We need to play a very serious match so as not to have any problems.”
Atletico’s leading scorer Colombian international Falcao is hoping to add a second Europa League winner’s medal to the one he won with Porto last year in a campaign where he broke Jurgen Klinsmann’s scoring record for a European club competition with 17.
Both sides warmed up for the second leg with home wins at the weekend – Falcao scoring his 20th of the league season – with Hanover gaining an impressive 2-1 victory over high-flying Borussia Moenchengladbach.
Atletico coach Diego Simeone said that Hanover could obviously go into the match in confident mood having scored away from home but he still felt his side had the upper hand.
“They (Hanover) can feel entitled to be favoured given they have an away goal and the home crowd behind them,” said the 41-year-old former Argentinian midfielder. “However, we still have the advantage and the strike power to see us through to the semi-finals,” added Simeone, who in two spells as a player with Atletico won the domestic double in 1996.
Valencia, winners of this competition in its previous UEFA Cup form in 2004, also have reason to be confident of overturning their slight disadvantage against an Alkmaar side that has punched above its weight both in the Europa League and domestically this season.
Indeed Alkmaar are just a point behind league leaders Ajax as they seek their third league title, having been crowned champions in 1981 and 2009.
This is new territory for Metalist but they will be looking to the inspiration of their domestic rivals Shakhtar Donetsk who became the first Ukrainian side to win an European club trophy when they beat Werder Bremen 2-1 in the last ever UEFA Cup final in 2009.