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Bish's Briefs - Europe is the place to be once more

Published: 02 Mar 2010 - 15:07:41

They used to spend all season throwing everything at winning a ticket to Europe. Sacrificing domestic cups along the way all in the hope of a passport to the continent.

And when the adventure began players were rested for weekend Premier League fixtures, the stiffs got a run out as we waited for the distraction to end. Times have changed. At least we thought they had.

Tottenham, Bolton and Aston Villa were all guilty of undermining the Europa League last season - even poor old Portsmouth found themselves doing it. The ambition became the distraction to achieving the same prize again.

The re-branding of Europe's secondary cup competition - mainly due to the tinkering of Michel Platini - has breathed new verve into a competition that had quite frankly become a turn-off.

Look back at the last five finals of the now defunct UEFA Cup - Shakthar v Werder Bremen, Zenit v Rangers, Sevilla v Espanyol, Sevilla v Middlesbrough and CSKA Moscow v Sporting Lisbon. Hardly inspirational and more a trophy for representatives of freshly financed leagues in a competition treated half-heartedly from the more recognised nations. The tide may be changing.

Last week threw together second legs with virtually every side hell bent on progression. The last 16 will carry the weight of Liverpool, Valencia, Juventus and Atletico Madrid. By the wayside fell Evrerton, Villarreal, Ajax, Athletic Bilbao, Galatasaray, Roma and PSV to name but a few. Defending champions Shakthar also fell - and it hurt.

The pressure to win silverware for clubs that were hit by Platini's stance on making Champions League qualification more testing for the third and fourth placed sides in the countries with higher UEFA coefficents has made the Europa League a thoroughly more watchable product. Teams now want to run the marathon of this competition instead of pulling up halfway round the track.

CHAMPIONS LEAGUE LIVES UP TO THE HYPE

Meanwhile UEFA's stellar competition the Champions League heads into next week with reputations on the line. Perfect for the television markets central to the thinking behind stretching the last 16 over four weeks.

Man Utd should progress past a Milan who blew their chance at the San Siro two weeks ago, and Barcelona, who were made to look very ordinary for large spells out in Stuttgart, should blow Christian Gross' side away at the Camp Nou.

The world's richest squad have to turn round a one goal deficit against Lyon whilst Jose Mourinho has the chance to knock his former club out on the ground he is still worshipped.

If any coach knows how to close a game out it is Mourinho and nobody knows the individual weaknesses of a group he largely created better.

With Samuel Eto'o, Gabriel Milito and Wesley Sneijder in his armoury, Inter have more than enough ability to catch out a stumbling Chelsea that will the onus on them to force the issue. Knocking out Chelsea would give the Italians the shot in the arm that would make them believe they can win their first European Cup since 1965.

Arsenal have plenty to do but have more than enough to sweep aside Porto. The Portuguese have progressed the last twelve times they have won the 1st leg of a tie without actually winning the second leg - I don't expect them to win at the Emirates but it could come down to the finest of margins.

Elsewhere Bordeaux have done the hard part by winning at Olympiakos and the emerging dark horses' campaign is gathering momentum.

No side took more points during the Group Stage and Laurent Blanc's side have begun to turn heads around Europe.

Another touted dark horse, Sevilla, negotiated a 35 degree temperature swing to come out looking the stronger from their first leg in Moscow whilst the ineptitude of the match officials in Munich garnered an animosity that should provide a powder-keg atmosphere when Bayern travel to Florence 2-1 up.

Plenty of knockout entertainment to look forward to, and for once, split between two competitions.

READ BISH'S BRIEFS EXCLUSIVELY AT FOOTBALL.CO.UK EVERY TUESDAY

DSG


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FOOTBALL.CO.UK BLOGGER:andy bishop
Having worked in radio, newspapers, magazines, internet and television I hope to now bring my passion for the game to your computer screens with analysis, comment and tongue-in-cheek humour on all things global in the world of football - from Barcelona to Boca and from Blatter to Berlusconi...enjoy!

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