28th March 2016.
Could Sevilla be on a crash course for a third consecutive title in the UEFA Europa League? Will Jurgen Klopp be able to coach a victory out of Liverpool as his new team faces his former club? These are just two of the fascinating narratives that are at play as the Europa League barrels into the quarterfinal round.
This year's UEL round of 16 was a bloodbath for many of the tournament's most promising performers. Tottenham Hotspur and Manchester United both fell out of contention, putting a huge dent in the chances of a Premier League team winning some European silverware this year. Lazio, following a nine-game undefeated run in this tournament, lost big in their second-leg match against Sparta Prague. That defeat, coupled with an early Champions League loss for Juventus, means that no Serie A squads are still active in either UEFA tournament. And Valencia, after a remarkable 10-0 aggregate against Rapid Wien in the round of 16, lost in extra time to Athletic Bilbao.
The Borussia Dortmund/Liverpool Contest
Easily the most intriguing draw on the table for the Europa League quarterfinal round is the match-up between Borussia Dortmund and Liverpool. Jurgen Klopp resigned from his position as Dortmund's head coach last year after a disappointing season left the football club with no trophies to speak and a seventh place in the Bundesliga.
After a brief sabbatical, Klopp moved on to the Premier League, replacing Brendan Rodgers as manager. But while Klopp's arrival was heralded as a turning point for Liverpool, life still hasn't been easy for the Reds. In a competitive EPL season, Klopp's squad has spent most of the months since his arrival skirting the top 10. In other words, the beloved German manager hasn't instantly built Liverpool FC into a title-contending team.
With that said, though, Liverpool is probably England's best shot at winning some European silverware this season. Just two Premier League soccer clubs remain in contention in UEFA tournaments: Manchester City in the Champions League and Liverpool in the Europa League. Manchester City have Paris Saint Germain to contend with in the quarterfinals and would likely have to beat other heavyweights like Barcelona, Real Madrid, or Bayern Munich before reaching the title.
If Liverpool can win their quarterfinal draw, then they might just set themselves up perfectly for a title run. Borussia Dortmund will likely finish second in the Bundesliga this season, but have given Bayern Munich a run for their money and have kept fairly close to the reigning German champs in the standing. Suffice to say that the Black and Yellows are strong this year, and will present a hefty challenge for Liverpool in the Europa League quarterfinal-even though Klopp is excited about facing off against his former club. "It's a story only football can write," the manager said of the match-up.
Dortmund were sloppy in the early rounds of this year's Europa League, losing two of their group stage matches and coming in second in the group to Russia's FC Krasnodar. But while Krasnodar lost in the round of 16, BVB have consistently risen to the challenge in this tournament. First, in the round of 16, Dortmund topped FC Porto on a 3-0 aggregate. Then, in the quarterfinal, they crushed the normally reliable Tottenham Hotspur 5-1.
Neither of those results bodes well for Liverpool, as both were tough draws that posed little to no challenge to Thomas Tuchel's Borussia Dortmund soccer squad. Unlike Dortmund, Liverpool are still undefeated in the 2015/16 Europa League, having snuck through the round of 32 and the round of 16 with combinations of draws and wins. The Reds also sent Manchester United packing last round in one of the most intriguing match-ups of the tournament so far.
Still, the Dortmund games will test Liverpool in ways the Anfield club have not necessarily been tested this season. On one hand, Jurgen Klopp knows Dortmund's talents and strategies well. Tuchel isn't coaching the team in the same way Klopp did, but Klopp might still be able to instruct his new squad on how to shut down the efforts of, say, BVB top scorer Pierre-Emerick Aubameyang.
In any case, expect a couple of world-class football games when these two teams head to Signal Iduna Park for the first leg on April 7th. This match-up could have made for a good Europa League final, but we're getting it in the quarterfinals.
The Rest of the Quarterfinal Draw
When the quarterfinal draw for the 2015/16 Europa League was announced on March 18th, most of the focus from fans and soccer pundits alike was placed on the Dortmund/Liverpool match-up. But while the battle between Jurgen Klopp's last two football clubs is certainly the most intriguing narrative to arise in the UEL tournament this year, it isn't the only one.
One intriguing factor with the quarterfinals this year is the presence of three Spanish soccer clubs. Villarreal, Athletic Bilbao, and Sevilla are all still alive in the Europa League. Valencia, meanwhile, could have easily reached the quarters if they had of been drawn against, say, Fenerbahce or Anderlecht instead of Athletic Bilbao.
This year, no other country even landed two clubs in the UEL quarterfinal. Liverpool are representing England, Dortmund are representing Germany, Shakhtar Donetsk are in for Ukraine, Braga are playing for Portugal, and Sparta Prague are here for the Czech Republic. France and Italy, meanwhile, failed to land a single team in this round.
Add Spain's three spots in the Champions League (for Barcelona, Real Madrid, and Atletico Madrid) and it's easy to see why the La Liga is dominating the UEFA coefficients lately. La Liga teams occupy six of the 16 quarterfinal spots in this year's European tournament. The Bundesliga, with three of the 16 slots, is the next most well-represented league.
Will Spain's 37.5% representation mean that La Liga clubs win both the Champions League and the Europa League for the third year in a row? In the UCL, Barcelona are the favorites once again. Borussia Dortmund and Liverpool both have the potential to play spoilers in the Europa League, but Sevilla have to be considered the frontrunners by default. The Red and Whites beat Benfica in a penalty shootout to win this tournament in 2014, and beat Dnipro Dnipropetrovsk 2-1 to win it again a year ago.
However, Sevilla will face a challenge in the quarterfinal when they are paired against their fellow La Liga competitors Athletic Bilbao. Bilbao and Sevilla are currently on a similar level in terms of La Liga rankings-though Sevilla won both of their head-to-head matches in the last year. Bilbao can be great when they need to be, though: they beat Barcelona to clinch the Supercopa de Espana last season, and have the 2015/16 Europa League's top scorer in the form of Artiz Anduriz.
Villarreal, meanwhile, are pitted against Sparta Prague for the quarterfinal. Both clubs have had impressive showings since finishing in their respective groups. Villarreal eliminated Napoli and Bayer Leverkusen-the former of which had won all six of their group stage matches. Sparta Prague, meanwhile, ousted Krasnodar and Lazio without breaking a sweat. Watch out for what happens in this match-up, because both teams have the makings of dark horse contenders.
Braga vs. Shakhtar Donetsk
The only other match-up on the table for the 2015/16 Europa League quarterfinal is between Braga and Shakhtar Donetsk. Braga won their group stage and beat Sion and Fenerbahce to get here. Shakhtar Donetsk lost five of their six games in a tough Champions League group stage draw that included Real Madrid and Paris Saint Germain. That record was still good enough to earn the Ukrainian football club a spot in the UEL knockout stage, and they've been solid ever since, eliminating Schalke 04 and Anderlecht.
Shakhtar Donetsk have played particularly well at home. They won their home leg against Schalke 3-0, after a scoreless draw in the first leg, and they topped Anderlecht 3-1 in the home leg. As such, the April 14th match between these two teams is likely the one to watch, so see if Shakhtar's home field advantage can hold strong for a third consecutive round.
Which teams are you rooting for in the 2015/16 Europa League? Do you want to see Jurgen Klopp prevail over his former team? Are you more of a Dortmund fan? Or would you like to see Sevilla do the unprecedented and win a third UEL tournament in a row? Share your thoughts with us at Twitter.
Europa League Quarter final Yields Interesting Narratives
28th March 2016.