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Alongside the much-anticipated Champions League, the UEFA Europa League also got off to a flying start last week. The second-tier continental competition may not be as valued and decorated as the “Big Ol’ Ears”, but it’s hardly any less competitive.
After settling the nerves with last week’s round of fixtures, the 64 teams are preparing to put the pedal to the metal this Thursday. So, here are the five Europa League fixtures you shouldn’t miss this week.
#5 Antwerp vs Tottenham Hotspur — Thursday
Last season, Antwerp found themselves at fourth place in the Belgium Pro League after 29 rounds of fixtures. COVID-19 struck, of course, which forced the league to be abandoned.
As a result, Antwerp, who had a four-point advantage over fifth-placed Liege, booked themselves a place in the Europa League qualifiers.
Tottenham, on the other hand, didn’t have to fight this hard to get into Europa. However, that doesn’t guarantee smooth sailing for Jose Mourinho’s men — not by a long shot.
Both Antwerp and Spurs got off to a winning start in Europa, last week, which would make them doubly determined to keep their streak going.
#4 Lille vs Celtic — Thursday
Last week, in their Europa League opener, Scottish champions, Celtic were subjected to a harrowing 3-1 defeat at the hands of Italy’s AC Milan. The hosts were played out of the match by the Serie A outfit and had pretty much nothing to show for their half-hearted efforts.
This week, they are going up against the leaders of Group H — away from the comfort of their home.
Lille scored four goals against Sparta Prague, last week, producing an exhilarating brand of football. The French side are aware of Celtic’s quality, of course, and would do their best to follow Milan’s footsteps. A fascinating encounter is on the horizon.
#3 Rangers vs Lech Poznan — Thursday
While Celtic struggled to get a foothold in the Europa League, Rangers kicked off their campaign in fine fashion — recording a comfortable 2-0 win away at Standard Liege.
The Scottish outfit looked comfortable throughout the match and would hope to attain similar results this Thursday.
Lech Poznan scored twice against heavyweights Benfica, last week, but couldn’t maintain the tempo in the closing minutes of the tie. Benfica eventually won the match 4-2, but the Polish outfit managed to conjure some really promising moments.
Steven Gerrard’s side have the psychological advantage going into the game, but Poznan aren’t likely to give up without a fight.
#2 AC Milan vs Sparta Prague — Thursday
Zlatan Ibrahimovic promised to help AC Milan return to glory days. The promise hasn’t been fulfilled yet, of course, but the Swede is surely doing all he can to make the dream come true.
He has been one of the most influential forwards in Italy since signing for Milan, last season, and we expect him to extend his fine run to the Europa League this Thursday.
Sparta Prague were humiliated by Lille in their group-stage meetup, last week, recording a 4-1 win. Prague seem to be pretty low on confidence at the moment and are likely to find it tough in Milano.
Watch this match for Serie A leader – Milan’s new look and Prague’s knack for surprises.
#1 Real Sociedad vs Napoli — Thursday
High-flyers of Europe locking horns with a powerhouse of Italy — the late-night clash at Anoeta has all it takes to become an encounter to remember.
Domestically, Sociedad have managed to impress even the most sceptical — sitting pretty at the summit after seven matches. They have the quality to breach almost any defence in the world and know have to keep their shape in transition.
Napoli, too, have been in fine shape in Italy, sitting at second spot, trailing league leaders, Milan, by a couple of points.
Yes, they were subjected to a 1-0 home defeat against AZ Alkmaar in their Europa League opener, but that shouldn’t dampen their spirits ahead of the tricky trip to the Basque Country. Expect exhilarating football and plenty of goals this Thursday.