A lookahead to the Europa League quarterfinals
Portugal and Spain have provided at least one team in nine of the past 11 finals of the UEFA Cup or Europa League and the two countries dominate the quarterfinal lineup for this year’s competition.
The Portuguese pair of Benfica and Porto and Spanish sides Valencia and Sevilla are battling for supremacy in Europe’s second-tier competition with Juventus, which is the biggest name in the last eight and seeking to reach a final that will be played in its home stadium in Turin.
The first legs take place on Thursday, with Juventus – the leader by 11 points in the Italian league – visiting Lyon. FC Porto hosts Sevilla in the other standout quarterfinal, while it’s also FC Basel vs. Valencia and AZ Alkmaar vs. Benfica.
Here is a lookahead to Thursday’s games:
Eliminating Juventus, the big tournament favorite, will be an uphill battle for a depleted and exhausted Lyon.
For its 52nd game this season, the French side will be without defenders Milan Bisevac, Samuel Umtiti, Miguel Lopes and Mouhamadou Dabo, and midfielders Gueida Fofana, Clement Grenier and Yoann Gourcuff.
While Lyon is fifth in Ligue 1, Juventus is the runaway leader in Serie A despite a 2-0 loss to Napoli at the weekend.
Juventus striker Carlos Tevez, the top scorer in the Italian league with 18 goals, was suspended for the Napoli match but should return for Lyon as the Argentina international seeks a first goal in European competition since April 2009.
The sounds of Basel vs. Valencia will echo around an empty 38,000-capacity St. Jakob Park stadium.
UEFA ordered the first leg to be played without fans as punishment after Basel supporters temporarily stopped play during its 2-1 win at Salzburg two weeks ago. After Swiss fans threw fireworks on the pitch in the first half, the referee took both teams to the locker rooms.
Basel is making its second straight run at the Europa League title, after being eliminated in the semifinals by eventual winner Chelsea one year ago.
While the league-leading Swiss champion can probably look forward to more Champions League football next season, Valencia might need to win this trophy to return to European competition.
Valencia is in a group of teams chasing eighth place in the Spanish league which could earn the last Europa League qualifying spot.
Basel is without veteran striker Marco Streller, while Valencia’s main injury absence is Brazil goalkeeper Diego Alves.
For a picture of FC Porto’s woes, look no further than Ricardo Quaresma.
The Portugal winger missed a penalty in Porto’s 2-1 defeat at Nacional last weekend, contributing to the defending champion’s second loss in three games and leaving it 15 points off the lead.
As Porto’s frustration boiled over amid another miserable performance, Quaresma lost his head and flung himself at an opponent in an on-field fracas that could earn him a lengthy suspension.
Porto’s downward slide, which brought the mid-season departure of coach Paulo Fonseca and his replacement with B-team interim coach Luis Castro, contrasts with Sevilla’s rise.
The southern Spanish club defeated Real Madrid last week as part of a six-game winning streak.
Porto and Sevilla are both two-time winners of Europe’s second-tier competition, including when was known as the UEFA Cup.
For Dick Advocaat, AZ Alkmaar’s quarterfinal against Benfica is the beginning of the end of his tenure at the Dutch club.
The vastly experienced coach, who replaced Gertjan Verbeek in October, announced at the weekend that he will be leaving the club at the close of this season when his contract expires. Out of contention in the Dutch league and knocked out of the domestic cup, the Europa League is his last chance to cap his brief stay in Alkmaar with a trophy.
Last year’s losing finalist, Benfica wants to make up for the disappointment of finishing last season empty-handed after letting a potential league, cup and Europa League treble slip out of its grasp.
Beaten by Chelsea in the 2013 Europa League final, it also lost the Portuguese Cup final and surrendered its Portuguese league lead two weeks before the end of the season.
It’s also into the semifinals of the Portuguese Cup, and has a seven-point lead at the top of the league with five rounds to play.
AP Sports Writer Graham Dunbar and Associated Press writers Barry Hatton, Mike Corder and Trung Latieule contributed to this report.