For Zenit Saint Petersburg reaching the Europa League quarter finals will be a mixture of achievement and disappointment. After finishing third in Group C of their Champions League group the Russian side were duly parachuted into the knockout-rounds of the Europa League, and to those who think this ruling is incredibly unfair there are caveats of consolation.
Firstly Zenit are the only club to fully capitalise on their second chance at continental glory and are now solely among those who have been here from the get-go, those who have played their peripheral talent in the group stages and seen their fixture list clog up in a ridiculously bloated tournament.
Additionally Andre Villas-Boas’ side have hardly had it straightforward in their two games thus far, having to dispense with a strong PSV and scrappy Torino to attain a last eight spot.
(All odds provided by Intertops.eu are accurate as of April 14th and are subject to change)
This Thursday evening it doesn’t get any easier with an away first-leg tie at holders Sevilla (3/5 with AllYoubet.ag – all odds are for qualification over the two-legged ties) whose slick, well-drilled menace is an intimidating prospect at Estadio Ramon Sanchez Pizjuan having remained unbeaten there all season. The mighty Barcelona tried this weekend, but despite taking a two goal lead, failed like the rest.
This then is the tie of the round and throws up some intriguing questions. Can Ezequiel Garay contain Sevilla’s Colombian hitman Carlos Bacca whose record of 17 goals in 28 games has seen him heavily linked with half of Europe’s elite? Will Hulk find the top corner instead of the corner flag as he grows increasingly frustrated at a meticulously organised rearguard and attempts an audacious thirty yarder? My money is on no, with Zenit (6/5) having it all to do in the return fixture on April 23rd.
Did I just say that Zenit’s trip to Sevilla was the tie of the round? Okay granted Wolfsburg’s (13/20) hosting of Napoli (11/10) runs it close.
Die Wölfe have bared their fangs in 2014/15 and attacked all and sundry with such pace and ambition as to make Kevin Keegan espouse a bit of defensive caution. With de Bruyne ripping apart the Bundesliga, shrewd acquisition Andre Schurrle settling straight in, and Bas Dost firing on all cylinders they have a lethal combination up top to put the fear of a deity into any side, and domestically they remain the only club still tapping on Bayern’s shoulder. Their 4-1 thumping at goal-shy Everton earlier in this tournament, though, reveals that Wolfsburg can be laid bare and here they face just the man to exploit their all-out approach. He persists with a fat man’s goatee, speaks English in a Spanish/Scouse mash-up, and goes by the singular moniker of Rafa.
Benitez is the grandmaster of European chess and with his exit planned from Napoli this summer will be keen to remind football’s behemoths what he is capable of engineering on the biggest stages of all. Expect a nullification of Wolfsburg in the first encounter – the hoary old training ground exercise of attack versus defence – with all the drama lying ahead at Stadio San Paolo. Can Wolfsburg pull off another Inter away? Can Lord Bendtner rise again? Or will an untethered Napoli prove too much with the red-hot Higuian no longer isolated and suddenly enjoying the exquisite close company of Hamsik, Mertens, and Callejon? It is too tight to call.
Elsewhere the remaining quarters each contains a Ukrainian side and there’s every chance this year’s final on May 27th could see two Eastern European clubs battling it out – Zenit v Dynamo Kyiv in Warsaw with Putin chuckling maniacally at the potential for further ‘unrest’, anyone?
Dinamo (13/10) take on Fiorentina (11/20) in a match-up that’s hipster heaven and shouldn’t disappoint with both in devastating form. Viola coach Vincenzo Montella has implemented a possession game with a multifarious attack and his players have bought into it eagerly earning them the flattering nickname of ‘Little Barcelona’ into the bargain. This makes them slight favourites to progress but it’s hard to see the prolific Ukrainians failing to score at least once in the first leg with Andriy Yarmolenko in particular looking deadly at present. Conversely Serhiy Rebrov’s team also have a worrying habit of conceding cheaply and it is this which may ultimately decide the tie.
Lastly Dnipro Dnipropetrovsk (9/10) face Club Brugge (4/5) and though the Belgians have goals aplenty in their armoury it is a favourable pairing for last season’s Ukrainian Premier League runners-up. Dnipro would be everybody’s favourite underdogs in this tournament were it not that pronouncing their name severs cartilage in your tongue and after their hard-fought dismissal of Ajax in the last 16 will now be viewing a semi-final spot with a degree of optimism. The mutual respect shown in the lead up to this game has been refreshing with both clubs admiring each other’s giant-killing.
It is sportsmanship that probably won’t last and certainly won’t be shared in the other three games.
Betting Instinct tip – Sevilla and Wolfsburg both to win their first legs is 2.8 with Intertops.eu