Europa serves as England's safe haven
Champions League results may, as Arsenal manager Arsene Wenger said, have been a wake-up call for the Premier League. Yet, the strength of the English league was demonstrated by the passage of all three of its representatives to the quarterfinal of the Europa League. Chelsea, Tottenham and Newcastle all endured some level of drama but all, in the end, survived. For those minded to care about such things, England stretched its lead over Germany in the UEFA coefficient table to 4.206 points.
Chelsea, trailing 1-0 from the first leg, seemed to be in control when it took the lead after 34 minutes. Brazilian playmaker Oscar regained possession and worked the ball through David Luiz to Juan Mata, who played a one-two with Ramires and finished via, Steaua Bucuresti goalkeeper Ciprian Tatarusanu and the post. Steaua, though, was always a threat on the counter-attack and leveled following a corner on the stroke of halftime, Vlad Chiriches eventually forcing the ball over the line after Cristian Tanase’s shot had been blocked.
That left Chelsea needing to score twice, and it got the first after 58 minutes, with John Terry escaping his marker to head in a Mata free kick. The second arrived from the unlikely source, Fernando Torres. Hazard flicked on a Mata pass and Torres calmly took the ball to the side of Lukasz Szukala and rolled his finish into the bottom corner. Any thought that might magically restore him to former glories, though, vanished as he struck a late penalty against the bar.
“It was a great victory, a great game against a good team,” said Chelsea manager Rafa Benitez before seemingly directing a jibe at fans who chanted for Jose Mourinho during the second half. “I thought everybody on our side would be pleased.”
The atmosphere at Stamford Bridge remains odd, with fans and managers engaged in a process of constant attritional sparring, yet there is momentum about Chelsea now after forcing a replay from 2-0 down against Manchester United in the FA Cup quarterfinal on Sunday.
“We had confidence before game and obviously more after the comeback against United,” Benitez said. “We showed character and passion and quality and today was exactly the same. All these things together make a good team.”
Tottenham also made it through - but only after far more drama than seemed likely when it won the first leg 3-0 a week ago against Inter Milan. Spurs were oddly in lethargic form and fell behind after 19 minutes as Antonio Cassano headed in Rodrigo Palacio’s cross at the back post.
The Argentinian forward then struck the bar before sliding in a second from Esteban Cambiasso’s through ball. With Spurs rocking, approaching full-on panic mode that used to be its default setting, a Cassano free-kick glanced off the edge of the wall and bounced in off William Gallas as the hapless defender tried to pull out of a clearance.
That sent the game into extra time, and Spurs seemed safe when Emmanuel Adebayor followed in after Samir Handanovic saved Mousa Dembele’s chance. But Cassano, playing somewhere near his sparking best, crossed for Ricky Alvarez to head in with 10 minutes remaining and Spurs, after withstanding a welter of late pressure, went through on the away goals rule.
“What happened to us tonight was what happened to Inter in London,” said Tottenham boss Andre Villas-Boas. “When the mind does not work, everything becomes a catastrophe. Every time that Inter scored they became stronger, and things were on knife’s edge for us. The players did well to go through and I can’t be afraid about that because I can feel the squad working towards a goal. But it was a great lesson for us: we will need it if we want to become great in Europe.”
Newcastle made it three out of three, although it took a last-minute goal to down Anzhi, despite the Russian side having Mehdi Carcela-Gonzalez sent off after 55 minutes. Mbark Boussoufa even hit the bar for Anzhi before Papiss Cisse headed home the winner.
There was further Russian disappointment as Yann Sommer saved a late penalty from Roman Shirokov to ensure Zenit St. Petersburg paid for its late sloppiness in the first leg in Basel. The Swiss side led 2-0 from the first leg but the comeback seemed on as Axel Witsel nodded in after Nicolas Lombaerts had flicked a corner from Hulk on the half hour. Things turned bleak when Marcelo Diaz was sent off just before halftime having collected two yellow cards in quick succession. With ten men, though, Basel held out for a 2-1 aggregate win.
Rubin Kazan ensured one Russian side did go through, although they needed extra time to see off Levante, the last remaining Spanish side in the competition. After a goalless first leg, Jose Rondon seized on Bebras Natcho’s pass to break the deadlock after 100 minutes and Vladimir Dyadyun ran onto a long throw-out from goalkeeper Sergei Ryzhikov to seal a 2-0 win 12 minutes later.
Benfica confirmed its passage to the quarterfinals with a 3-2 win in Bordeaux to complete a 4-2 aggregate victory, while Fenerbahce drew 1-1 at home to Viktoria Plzen for a 2-1 aggregate success.