After the excitement of the Champions League returning on Tuesday and Wednesday this week, the Europa League knockout stage begins on Thursday with no shortage of intriguing matchups.
In terms of Premier League interest, Arsenal and Chelsea are both in action, while north of the border Scottish champions Celtic face a tough task in the form of La Liga’s Valencia.
Here, we have picked out the four best Europa League’s games to look out for on Thursday.
Lazio vs Sevilla
Simone Inzaghi’s Lazio only narrowly missed out on qualification for the Champions League after they were edged out for fourth place in Serie A by Inter Milan last season.
Over the summer, the Biancoceleste managed to hang on to star man Sergej Milinkovic-Savic and looked set to make an assault on the Italian top flight’s top four once again.
And, although they have been inconsistent and currently sit seventh in the table, the Roman side are just a point shy of fourth place.
Riding a streak of three successive victories, Lazio welcome Sevilla to the Stadio Olimpico for the first leg of their Europa League last-32 tie.
The Spanish side began the season brightly, figuring near the top of La Liga in the early running, but inconsistency has set in of late, with the Andalusians losing their last three games, including a 6-1 Copa del Rey thrashing at the hands of Barcelona.
Wissam Ben Yedder is the danger man for Sevilla. The Frenchman has struck 11 times in La Liga this term and his four Europa League goals have come at a rate of one every 66 minutes.
Celtic vs Valencia
With the Scottish Premiership title race shaping up to be the closest and most hotly contested for some time, Celtic’s focus may be drawn away from their usual ambition of making inroads in Europe through the second half of the season.
The Bhoys’ run of five Premiership victories in a row since December’s Old Firm defeat to Rangers has seen Brendan Rodgers’ side open up a healthy six-point advantage at the top of the table, however, so Celtic can afford to prioritise the visit of Valencia to Glasgow’s East End.
And Celtic have been boosted by the arrival of 18-year-old USA international Timothy Weah on loan from Paris Saint-Germain last month. The young attacker has already scored twice in the Premiership and his pace and skill will give Valencia something to worry about.
The Spanish side, after finishing fourth last season, sit only eighth in La Liga this term, having won just six league games all season, and they have drawn each of their last three fixtures in all competitions.
BATE Borisov vs Arsenal
It’s been an up-and-down start to the post-Wenger era at Arsenal. The Gunners, after losing their opening two Premier League games of the season, embarked upon a long unbeaten run and looked certain to improve upon last season’s sixth-place finish and challenge for Champions League qualifications.
But recent results have been far less convincing. Unai Emery’s men are fifth, able to record back-to-back victories just once since mid-December.
With Manchester United having rallied under Ole Gunnar Solskjaer to claim fourth, Arsenal must take the Europa League seriously once again – they reached the semi-finals last season – as it may yet prove their most viable route back to the Champions League.
BATE’s utter dominance of the Belarusian Premier League was severely threatened last season, when Dinamo minsk pushed them close. Ultimately, BATE secured their 13th title in a row on goal difference.
Currently in their offseason, BATE will be hoping rustiness is not a factor when they take on the Gunners.
Malmo vs Chelsea
Chelsea’s recent form – having lost 6-0 to Manchester City and 4-0 to Bournemouth in their last three matches – means they don’t have the luxury of taking their foot off the peddle against Malmo on Thursday with one eye on Monday’s FA Cup fifth-round showdown with Manchester United.
Much like Arsenal, the Blues’ desperate inconsistency of late means the Europa League might soon begin to look like their most inviting route back to Europe’s top table too.
In Malmo, Chelsea face a side who haven’t played a competitive fixture since the Europa League group stage came to a close in December, with the Swedish domestic season not due to start back up until the end of March.
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