English sides lead Europa hopefuls
PARIS - Agence France-Presse
Europa League contender Chelsea is on a poor run in its domestic competition, where it has won just one of its last five outings in the Premier League. REUTERS photoTraditional European heavyweights Chelsea and Liverpool headline a quartet of English clubs harboring Europa League dreams as the round of 32 gets underway tonight.
Two-time champions Tottenham also joins Newcastle among the Premier League hopefuls seeking to make their mark in the competition’s knockout phase.
Defending European champion Chelsea infamously made history when it became the first Champions League titleholder to exit the competition in the group stage, but the Blues are now aiming to enter the record books in a far more positive light.
“It is true the Europa League is not the same as the Champions League because that is the top but the Europa League is a big competition, an important competition, and now we have the chance to win it. Never in the history of Chelsea have we won this cup and we are going to try to do it,” said Spanish defender Cesar Azpilicueta.
The Londoners travel to Sparta Prague tonight to face a Czech team playing their first competitive fixture since the winter break.
Visit to Russia
Liverpool’s quest for a record fourth title takes the team to Saint Petersburg for a first-leg tie against double defending Russian Premier League champions Zenit.
Liverpool lies ninth in the table after a dismal 2-0 home defeat to West Brom on Feb. 11, but first-year boss Brendan Rodgers hopes his players can quickly put that setback behind them against the 2008 Europa League winners.
“We just have to keep striving and look towards the next game. We’ve got the Europa League game on Thursday night, which is a good opportunity for us to progress in a competition.”
Following their shock FA Cup exit to third-tier Oldham, the tournament represents the Reds’ last realistic chance of silverware this season.
Meanwhile, Tottenham hosts Ligue 1 title challenger Lyon at White Hart Lane with Spurs goalkeeper Hugo Lloris set to face his former teammates for the first time since his August departure.
“It’s not easy for me because I have a good relationship with all my ex-teammates but that is football, that is the life. On the pitch there are no friends. We play for our team and give all the best for our team,” said Lloris.
Newcastle goes into its clash with Ukrainian side Metalist Kharkiv at St. James’ Park, where the team is unbeaten in 11 European home games, in confident mood.
Other notable ties include holder Atletico Madrid hosting Russian outfit Rubin Kazan, while three-time winner Inter Milan is at home to Romania’s CFR Cluj and Napoli entertains Czech table-toppers Viktoria Plzen.