Rangnick Relieved To Secure Europa League Spot For Man Utd

File photo: ex-Manchester United German Interim head coach Ralf Rangnick leaves the field of play after the English Premier League football match between Manchester United and Crystal Palace at Old Trafford in Manchester, north west England, on December 5, 2021. Paul ELLIS / AFP

 

Ralf Rangnick admitted he was relieved Manchester United qualified for next season’s Europa League despite their 1-0 defeat against Crystal Palace on Sunday.

Rangnick finished his troubled spell as United’s interim manager by securing sixth place in the Premier League.

United did little to help themselves, losing to a goal from their former forward Wilfried Zaha while incoming boss Erik ten Hag watched from the stands at Selhurst Park.

Brighton’s 3-1 win against West Ham proved crucial for United as it kept the Hammers below them in seventh place.

With United avoiding the ignominy of playing in the Europa Conference League next season, Rangnick will step down to work as a consultant at Old Trafford while also coaching Austria.

Ten Hag will start work at United shortly, having led Ajax to the Dutch title.

“Yes, I think Brighton did us the favour to turn the game around because they were losing at half-time,” said Rangnick.

“They scored three times in the second half and that was the good thing about the weekend and about this fixture.

“We would have loved to take care of ourselves but in a way the game was indicative of the last couple of weeks.”

READ ALSOArsenal Miss Out On Champions League For Fifth Season In A Row

Rangnick said it had been a strange experience for him since being appointed as a stop gap manager in late November when Ole Gunnar Solskjaer was fired.

“It was a new experience for me, not necessarily coming in the middle of the season but knowing that it would be an interim role.

“Unfortunately we didn’t have any pre-season and unfortunately we couldn’t strengthen the squad.

“We collected enough points with an average of 2.1 until the game against Atletico but I think that defeat in the Champions League was in a way like somebody popped the balloon.”

Rangnick did not hold back in his assessment of a United squad that lost focus after they exited the Champions League against Atletico Madrid in March.

“I think the big goal of some of our top players was the Champions League and after this defeat to Atletico you could literally feel it in training that we did not have the same level of energy, focus and concentration,” he said.

While Ten Hag was at Palace, he did not go into the United dressing room.

Rangnick will warn his successor he must improve United’s team-spirit when they speak in the coming days.

“Team spirit, yes this is also an issue. I think this team could do with more cohesion, there could be more togetherness on the pitch,” he said.

AFP

Eintracht Frankfurt Beat Rangers To Win Europa League


Frankfurt’s Colombian striker Rafael Borre (2nd L) celebrates with teammates after Eintracht Frankfurt won the UEFA Europa League final football match between Eintracht Frankfurt and Glasgow Rangers at the Ramon Sanchez Pizjuan stadium in Seville on May 18, 2022. Pierre-Philippe MARCOU / AFP

 

Eintracht Frankfurt defeated Rangers 5-4 on penalties to win the Europa League on Wednesday after the final in Seville finished 1-1 at the end of extra time.

Aaron Ramsey missed for Rangers in the shoot-out after coming on as a substitute with only three minutes left of extra time, before Rafael Borre struck the winning shot to complete Frankfurt’s remarkable triumph.

“We will celebrate for the next few days now,” said Frankfurt coach Oliver Glasner.

Borre was the hero of the night, after already cancelling out Joe Aribo’s opener for Rangers as Frankfurt won their first European trophy since 1980 and booked their place in next season’s Champions League group stage.

READ ALSO[WAFU B Tournament] Nigeria Reaches Final, Qualify For 2023 U20 AFCON

“I dreamed of tonight, of a historic night for the club, a historic night for me,” said Borre, the Colombian. “It’s my first European title. I will keep this memory forever.”

“We are all heroes. Without the fans we wouldn’t have made it,” said Frankfurt goalkeeper Kevin Trapp.

Both clubs were looking to win a second European title in their history, Rangers after clinching the Cup Winners’ Cup in 1972 and Frankfurt after they lifted the UEFA Cup 42 years ago.

But Rangers came up just short at the end of an incredible run to the final. Only 10 years ago this week, Rangers fell into administration before being liquidated and relegated to Scotland’s bottom tier.

Frankfurt had already beaten Real Betis, Barcelona and West Ham United en route to the final and they were probably deserving winners, shading a compelling contest that always seemed to lack real technical quality.

With a capacity of just under 43,000, Sevilla’s Ramon Sanchez Pizjuan ground was never going to be big enough to house all the travelling fans, with Rangers bringing over an estimated 100,000 while around 60,000 followed Frankfurt to Spain.

The vast majority enjoyed the day in good spirits but security concerns were not unfounded, with skirmishes breaking out in the city centre during the day on Wednesday while five German fans were arrested late Tuesday after police said 200 Frankfurt fans launched an attack on Rangers supporters.

It was a scruffy opening 15 minutes as Joe Aribo almost got away after a neat pirouette by Scott Wright before John Lundstram scraped his studs down the dipping head of Sebastian Rode, leaving the Frankfurt captain with a bloody shirt that had to be changed and a head that had to be strapped.

The Germans gradually took control, suffocating Rangers, who were reduced to speculative punts forward to try to escape the press.

Pressure mounting

Frankfurt’s Ansgar Knauff went close, the penalty box opening up for the winger at the end of a winding run forward, only for Allan McGregor to tip wide.

Rangers had their moments and improved before the break as Lundstram’s header had to be pushed over and Ryan Jack drove too high.

Frankfurt seemed rejuvenated for the start of the second half but it was Rangers who took the lead just before the hour, capitalising on two dreadful Frankfurt errors, each compounding the other.

First, Djibril Sow misjudged a header in midfield, sending it back behind his own defence for the lively Aribo to latch onto, and then as Frankfurt’s Tutu chased, he slipped, gifting a free run to the striker, who slotted home.

However, Eintracht drew level in the 69th minute as Filip Kostic was given too much space out wide to cross and then in the middle, Connor Goldson and Calvin Bassey both hesitated to clear. Borre nipped between them and prodded in.

There were precious few opportunities in the final minutes but the contest became stretched in extra time.

Rangers might have won it in the 118th minute as the sprinting Ryan Kent arrived at the back post only for Trapp to make a sensational save.

To penalties, and the Rangers fans roared when the coin toss put the shoot-out at their end. James Tavernier, Steven Davis and Scott Arfield all scored for Rangers as did Frankfurt’s Christopher Lenz, Ajdin Hrustic and Daichi Kamada, whose shot squeezed in off the post.

But Ramsey fired too straight, hitting Trapp’s left foot and after Kostic and Kemar Roofe converted, it was up to Borre to finish it. He made no mistake.

 

AFP

Three Nigerians Eye Historic Europa League Glory With Rangers

A photo collage of Aribo, Calvin Bassey, and Leon Balogun of Rangers.

 

Joe Aribo, Leon Balogun, and Calvin Bassey will be aiming for history when Glasgow Rangers take on Eintracht Frankfurt in the Europa League final on Wednesday.

The match could even be more historic if  Rangers’ manager Giovanni van Bronckhorst lists the Nigerians in the squad for the tie in Seville.

Wednesday’s match is another landmark game. It will be the first time three Nigerians will feature for a club that got to the European final. Finidi George and Nwankwo Kanu played for Ajax in the 1995 Champions League final against AC Milan while Mikel Obi and Victor Moses were part of the Chelsea team that won the Europa League in 2013.

READ ALSO: [WAFU B Tournament] Nigeria Reaches Final, Qualify For 2023 U20 AFCON

‘The Boys Are Buzzing’

Rangers’ Nigerian midfielder Joseph Ayodele-Aribo attends a team training session at the Rangers Training Centre in Glasgow on May 12, 2022, ahead of their Europa League final football match against Eintracht Frankfurt on May 18th. ANDY BUCHANAN / AFP

 

Rangers face the Germans in Seville aiming to add to their 1971/72 Cup Winners’ Cup success.

Victory for Rangers will be a huge compensation for the trio who featured as Nigeria failed to make the 2022 World Cup.

But Aribo is determined to banish the memories of the World Cup miss and Nigeria’s Round of 16 crash at the 2021 Africa Cup of Nations (AFCON).

“All the boys are buzzing. We know what an opportunity we have and we are ready to go, to be honest,” Aribo said.

‘It’s Just Crazy’

Leon Balogun scored in the team’s run to the final. [email protected] Balogun.

 

For Calvin Bassey, 22, playing in the Europa League final is a dream come true.

“When I look at it four years ago, I was just like an U18s footballer. I’m in the youth team and now four years on I can potentially play in the Europa League final,” he told Rangers’ TV.

“It is just crazy just looking at how far I have come and how happy I am every day for being here and just being a part of it.”

Balogun’s Role

Bassey’s compatriot, Balogun will be playing in his first European Cup final. The 33-year-old should be in the matchday squad if fit. Already, he has a goal to his name in the competition. He was on the scoresheet for Rangers against Crvena Zvezda.

Overall, he has played 10 games for Van Bronckhorst’s men in the Europa League this season.

‘Chance… To Be In History Books’

Giovanni Van Bronckhorst (R) during his time at Feyenoord Rotterdam. Credit: Van Bronckhorst/Twitter
File photo: Giovanni Van Bronckhorst (R) during his time at Feyenoord Rotterdam. Credit: Van Bronckhorst/Twitter

 

The game is also hugely significant for the club. When administration, liquidation, and relegation all blighted a broken Rangers in 2012, none thought they would be so swift in recovering.

But if the Rangers’ recovery was complete when they won the Scottish Premiership again last season, a final in Seville now offers them a shot at European glory too.

“We’re one game away from making history,” Rangers midfielder Aaron Ramsey said on Monday as the squad departed for Spain, the final leg of a journey that began eight months ago in defeat and disappointment.

With the chance to play in the Champions League on the back of winning the Scottish title, Rangers instead lost to Malmo in the third qualifying round, a result that set up a play-off to reach the Europa League with Alashkert from Armenia.

There were more prestigious opponents to come as Rangers, under Giovanni van Bronckhorst from November after Steven Gerrard left for Aston Villa, defeated Borussia Dortmund, Red Star Belgrade, Braga, and Leipzig in the knock-out rounds to reach their first European final in 14 years.

A victory would earn the club its first cup on the continent since Rangers beat Dynamo Moscow 3-2 in Barcelona to lift the Cup Winners’ Cup in 1972.

“This is a chance for them to be in the history books of this club and really get a historic win,” said Van Bronckhorst.

“Then the stories they will tell in years to come will be the same stories that the players from 1972 tell to my players.

“I’ve said it before you have to dream of something to really achieve it. You can work hard and really give everything to achieve your goal and that is beautiful.”

West Ham See Red As Frankfurt Reach Europa League Final


Frankfurt’s Colombian forward Rafael Borre celebrates scoring the opening goal with his teammates during the UEFA Europa League semi-final second leg football match Eintracht Frankfurt v West Ham United in Frankfurt, western Germany on May 5, 2022. Christof STACHE / AFP

 

Eintracht Frankfurt reached their first European final for 42 years after a 1-0 home win on Thursday over 10-man West Ham sealed a 3-1 aggregate victory in their Europa League semi-final.

West Ham had left-back Aaron Cresswell sent off early on and Hammers manager David Moyes was also dismissed from the sidelines with 12 minutes left for arguing with the referee.

Colombia striker Rafael Borre netted the first-half winner on the night to book Frankfurt a place in the Europa League final on May 18 in Seville against Scottish giants Rangers.

Borre scored just after Cresswell was sent off, leaving the visitors a man down for more than an hour and needing to score twice just to force extra time.

Frankfurt had been dealt an early blow when key defender Martin Hinteregger limped off with a leg injury.

READ ALSO: Rangers Roar Into Europa League Final

When a long ball put Frankfurt’s Jens Hauge into space, Cresswell pulled back the Norwegian, who went down just outside the area.

Cresswell, who was also sent off in the quarter-final first leg against Lyon, was initially only booked, but referee Jesus Gil Manzano brandished the red card after a VAR review.

Moyes responded by swapping Ben Johnson for forward Manuel Lanzini.

Yet Frankfurt went ahead in the 26th minute.

When the hosts attacked down the right flank, Ansgar Knauff’s cross found Borre, who fired home unmarked in the area.

Dogged defending in the second half restricted Frankfurt to just a handful of chances for Knauff and Filip Kostic, who caused havoc on the left.

West Ham had chances of their own and as the visitors pushed for an equaliser, Manzano banished Moyes to the stands after the Scot lost his temper.

Frankfurt, who lost to Chelsea on penalties in the 2019 Europa League semi-finals, are into their first European final since winning the UEFA Cup in 1979/80.

AFP

Aribo, Balogun, Bassey Lead Rangers Into Europa League Final


Rangers’ English midfielder John Lundstram (C) is congratulated by teammates as they celebrate after the UEFA Europa League Semi-final, second leg football match between Rangers and RB Leipzig at the Ibrox Stadium, in Glasgow, on May 5, 2022. ANDY BUCHANAN / AFP

 

Rangers produced one of their greatest European performances to beat RB Leipzig 3-1 on Thursday to reach the Europa League final 3-2 on aggregate.

James Tavernier and Glen Kamara turned the tie around inside the first 24 minutes at an emotionally charged Ibrox as players and fans united to pay tribute to long-serving kitman Jimmy Bell, who died on Tuesday.

Christopher Nkunku hit back for Leipzig in the second half, but John Lundstram scored the winner nine minutes from time.

Giovanni van Bronckhorst’s men will face Eintracht Frankfurt in the final in Seville on May 18 in just their second European final in 50 years.

The Scottish champions lost to Zenit St Petersburg in the UEFA Cup final of 2008, but have had to start again from the fourth tier following a financial collapse in 2012.

READ ALSOReal Madrid And Liverpool Set For Paris Rematch

Last season they ended Celtic’s run of nine league titles in a row and will return to the Champions League for the first time since 2010 with victory over Frankfurt at the Ramon Sanchez Pizjuan in 13 days’ time.

Leipzig’s 1-0 advantage from the first leg was blown away early on in front of a cacophonous noise.

Right-back Tavernier moved outright as the top scorer in the competition with seven goals, all of which have come in the knockout phase, when he timed his run to perfection to turn in Ryan Kent’s cross.

Kamara then guided a wonderful finish low into the far corner from outside the box and kissed his black armband in tribute to Bell.

Joe Aribo should have made it three within half an hour when he missed his kick from point-blank range.

Leipzig lost just once in 19 games between January and April, but have now been beaten in three of their last four to put their chances of Champions League football next season hanging in the balance.

The Germans enjoyed the majority of the ball in the second half and were back on level terms in the tie when Nkunku steered home his 32nd goal of the season from Angelino’s cross.

Rangers then had to dig deep just to keep Leipzig at bay, but they found the winner late on.

Kent’s cross to the back post caused panic in the Leipzig defence and the loose ball broke to Lundstram to stroke into an unguarded net and spark wild scenes of celebration.

AFP

Barcelona Stunned By Frankfurt, West Ham And Rangers Reach Europa League Semis

Barcelona's Spanish defender Jordi Alba and teammates react at the end of the Europa League quarter final second leg football match between FC Barcelona and Eintracht Frankfurt at the Camp Nou stadium in Barcelona on April 14, 2022. LLUIS GENE / AFP
Barcelona’s Spanish defender Jordi Alba and teammates react at the end of the Europa League quarter final second leg football match between FC Barcelona and Eintracht Frankfurt at the Camp Nou stadium in Barcelona on April 14, 2022. LLUIS GENE / AFP

 

Favourites Barcelona were dumped out of the Europa League by Eintracht Frankfurt in the quarter-finals on Thursday, while West Ham United and Rangers joined RB Leipzig in qualifying for the last four.

Serbian international Filip Kostic scored twice either side of a Rafael Santos Borre strike at the Camp Nou for Frankfurt, who survived a late fightback to win 3-2 on the night and 4-3 on aggregate.

Sergio Busquets scored a late consolation before Memphis Depay’s even later penalty for Barcelona but Eintracht held on, to the delight of the estimated 30,000 German supporters who travelled for the game.

READ ALSO: NFF Appoints Coaches For CHAN, U-20, U-17 Male National Teams

They go through to their second Europa League semi-final in four seasons, having lost on penalties to Chelsea at the same stage in 2019.

“I am speechless. Nobody expected this, if you are honest. Everyone expected us to suffer,” said Frankfurt goalkeeper Kevin Trapp.

Barcelona’s recent revival under Xavi Hernandez has been remarkable but this defeat means they have won just once at home all season in Europe, and their campaign is now set to end without silverware.

“It’s a hammer blow for us. They deserved to go through,” admitted Xavi.

After conceding three penalties in their weekend win over Levante, Barca fell behind to another spot-kick inside four minutes against Eintracht, as Kostic converted after a foul by Eric Garcia to the delight of the enormous away support.

The visitors scored again in the 36th minute as Colombian forward Borre fired high into the net from range, and Kostic’s low finish into the far corner made it 3-0 midway through the second half.

Busquets had a late goal disallowed for offside before he found the net with a fantastic strike from 20 metres in the first minute of injury time.

The game carried on into an 11th added minute when Depay netted a penalty after Evan Ndicka was sent off, receiving a second caution for a foul on Luuk de Jong.

West Ham outclass Lyon

Yet Eintracht maintained their record of not having lost to Spanish opposition since the 1960 European Cup final against Real Madrid, and they will face West Ham in the semi-finals.

The English side are through to their first European semi-final since losing the 1976 Cup Winners’ Cup final to Anderlecht after they outclassed Lyon in France, winning 3-0 on the night and 4-1 on aggregate.

The Hammers took the lead in the 38th minute of the return when Craig Dawson headed in a Pablo Fornals corner.

Captain Declan Rice slotted in their second just before the break, his sidefoot effort from the edge of the area beating Lyon goalkeeper Julian Pollersbeck with the aid of a deflection.

The outcome was put beyond doubt when West Ham scored again three minutes after the restart as Fornals sent Jarrod Bowen away to make it 3-0.

“The journey in two years, we were talking about relegation, and now we’re talking about getting to the semi-final of a European tournament. It’s fabulous, and we’re all going to look forward to it,” said West Ham manager David Moyes.

Rangers through in extra time

There was drama in Glasgow as Rangers were taken to extra time by Braga before winning 3-1 on the night and 3-2 on aggregate as the Portuguese side finished the game with nine men.

James Tavernier gave Rangers a second-minute lead to level the tie on aggregate, and they had another goal disallowed and then hit the woodwork before winning a penalty just before the interval.

Vitor Tormena was sent off for a foul on Kemar Roofe, and Tavernier netted from the spot.

David Carmo’s 83rd-minute header took the tie to extra time, but Roofe’s 101st-minute finish put Rangers back in front on aggregate and Braga then had Iuri Medeiros dismissed.

Rangers will now face Leipzig in their first European semi-final since reaching the 2008 UEFA Cup final.

French international Christopher Nkunku scored both goals as Leipzig beat Atalanta 2-0 in Italy to win their last-eight tie 3-1 on aggregate.

Nkunku opened the scoring in the 18th minute in Bergamo and then added a late penalty, his 30th goal of the season in all competitions.

First 11: Bid For Chelsea Continues + Other Top Sports Stories Last Week

top sports stories
First 11 captures some of the top sports stories for the week.

 

With just one week to the first leg of the 2022 World Cup playoff showdown with Ghana, there has been so much noise about the encounter. While Nigeria have unveiled their squad, Ghana are yet to do so.

The match venue has also been a major talking point. The draws for the Champions League quarter-finals and the Europa League were also held. Manchester United earlier lost to Atletico Madrid, piling more pressure on a struggling team.

These and other top sports stories this week are captured in First Eleven.


Injury Scare

(Top L-R) Nigeria’s goalkeeper Maduka Okoye, defender Kenneth Omeruo, midfielder Wilfred Ndidi, forward Taiwo Awoniyi, midfielder Joe Aribo, defender William Troost-Ekong, (bottom L-R) forward Kelechi Iheanacho, defender Ola Aina, defender Zaidu Sanusi, forward Samuel Chukwueze and forward Moses Simon pose prior to the Group D Africa Cup of Nations (CAN) 2021 football match between Nigeria and Sudan at Stade Roumde Adjia in Garoua on January 15, 2022. Daniel BELOUMOU OLOMO / AFP

 

Nigeria may have reasons to worry ahead of the tie with Ghana following injuries to midfielder Wilfred Ndidi and defender Kenneth Omeruo. Ndidi was taken off the pitch in his side’s loss to Rennes in a Europa Conference League tie on Thursday.

Leicester City boss Brendan Rodgers in a post-game interview said the injury was disappointing but it is unclear when he would recover.


Omeruo Doubtful

Egypt's forward Mohamed Salah (R) fights for the ball with Nigeria's defender Kenneth Omeruo during the Group D Africa Cup of Nations (CAN) 2021 football match between Nigeria and Egypt at Stade Roumde Adjia in Garoua on January 11, 2022. Daniel BELOUMOU OLOMO / AFP
In this file photo, Egypt’s forward Mohamed Salah (R) fights for the ball with Nigeria’s defender Kenneth Omeruo during the Group D Africa Cup of Nations (CAN) 2021 football match between Nigeria and Egypt at Stade Roumde Adjia in Garoua on January 11, 2022. Daniel BELOUMOU OLOMO / AFP

 

His compatriot has not played for Leganes in the last four league games following a groin injury but is expected to make a return this Sunday. The 28-year-old was a mainstay in the heart of Nigeria’s defence at the 2021 Africa Cup of Nations earlier in the year.

Nigeria will now play the waiting game to know if the duo will be fit for the double-legged tie.


Amuneke Backs Okoye

maduka okoye
Maduka Okoye made his debut for Nigeria in 2019 in a friendly game against Brazil. Photo: Sparta Rotterdam

 

And ahead of the clash, Super Eagles chief coach Emmanuel Amuneke has backed Maduka Okoye to retain his place in the team. The youngster came under fire following his performance at the AFCON, especially in the game against Tunisia where the three-time African champions slumped to a shocking defeat.

Amuneke told Brila FM that the German-born goalkeeper may have made a mistake but believes it is not enough to sideline him.


Venue Changed, Ghana Squad Awaited

(Top L-R) Nigeria’s goalkeeper Maduka Okoye, midfielder Wilfred Ndidi, defender Kenneth Omeruo, forward Taiwo Awoniyi, midfielder Joe Aribo, defender William Troost-Ekong, (bottom L-R) forward Kelechi Iheanacho, defender Ola Aina, defender Zaidu Sanusi, forward Moses Simon and forward Samuel Chukwueze pose prior to the Africa Cup of Nations (CAN) 2021 round of 16 football match between Nigeria and Tunisia at Stade Roumde Adjia in Garoua on January 23, 2022. Daniel BELOUMOU OLOMO / AFP

 

Nigeria’s foes Ghana are yet to announce their squad for the double-legged tie.  Earlier in the week, Ghanaian football authorities confirmed that the venue for the first leg of the encounter has been changed. A Ghana Football Association (GFA) statement said the Baba Yara Sports Stadium in Kumasi will now host the playoff.  The approval came after a CAF inspection.


Draws for Champions League

(FILES) In this file photo taken on February 28, 2020 shows the UEFA logo at the organization's headquarters in Nyon. Fabrice COFFRINI / AFP
This file photo taken on February 28, 2020, shows the UEFA logo at the organization’s headquarters in Nyon. Fabrice COFFRINI / AFP

 

A day after Leicester City advanced to the next phase of the Europa Conference League, draws for the competition, the Europa League, and the Champions League were held. In one of the most mouth-watering ties in the Champions League, Spanish giants Real Madrid square off against holders Chelsea in the last eight. Manchester City battle Atletico Madrid.

Ndidi’s club will tackle Dutch power house PSV Eindhoven.


Europa League Fixtures

In the Europa League, Barcelona face Eintracht Frankfurt, and Scottish giants, Rangers take on Braga. Other fixtures are West Ham vs Lyon and RB Leipzig vs Atalanta.


Man United Crash Out

Manchester United's English defender Harry Maguire (C) looks to play a pass during the UEFA Champions League round of 16 second leg football match between Manchester United and Atletico Madrid at Old Trafford stadium in Manchester, north west England on March 15, 2022. Paul ELLIS / AFP
Manchester United’s English defender Harry Maguire (C) looks to play a pass during the UEFA Champions League round of 16 second leg football match between Manchester United and Atletico Madrid at Old Trafford stadium in Manchester, north west England on March 15, 2022.
Paul ELLIS / AFP

 

Before the draws, Manchester United were one of the biggest casualties in the Champions League round of 16. They lost to Atletico 2-1 on aggregate to pile more pressure on a struggling squad.  On the home front, the former European champions are fourth on the league table, one point behind Arsenal who have two games at hand.


Bid For Chelsea Continues

In this file photo taken on August 15, 2016, Chelsea’s Russian owner Roman Abramovich takes his seat ahead of the English Premier League football match between Chelsea and West Ham United at Stamford Bridge in London.  Justin TALLIS / AFP

 

As top European teams know their foes in various continental competitions, Chelsea are facing issues off the pitch. On Wednesday, reports emerged that Chicago Cubs owners, the Ricketts family, have confirmed they are leading a consortium to bid to buy English club.

Already, New York merchant bank Raine Group has set a Friday deadline for bids, with Roman Abramovich’s 19-year tenure as owner of the Stamford Bridge club ending.


Clause Activated!

In this file photo, British heavyweight champion boxer Anthony Joshua leaves the arena after losing to Ukrainian boxer Oleksandr Usyk during their heavyweight boxing match at Tottenham Hotspur Stadium in north London on September 25, 2021. (Photo by Adrian DENNIS / AFP)

 

Away from football, Joe Joyce’s manager says Anthony Joshua has been contacted but questioned the Nigerian-born boxer’s readiness to take the fight as he waits for a rematch with Oleksandr Usyk.

Joshua activated the clause for a rematch to vie for the WBA, IBF, and WBO heavyweight titles after Usyk defeated him in September. It is, however, uncertain when Usyk will be ready to make a comeback to the ring as his country has been invaded by Russian forces.


Yusuf Eyes Mitchell 

 

Earlier in the week, Sodiq Yusuff defeated Alex Caceres at UFC Apex in Las Vegas, winning by a unanimous decision. Following the win, he expressed eagerness to face Bryce Mitchell in the next fight

“I really want to test myself against Arkansas’ finest,” the Nigerian said. “I’d really like to fight Bryce Mitchell.”


Brume Eyes History

Bronze medallist, Nigeria’s Ese Brume poses on the podium after the women’s long jump event during the Tokyo 2020 Olympic Games at the Olympic Stadium in Tokyo on August 3, 2021. (Photo by Ina FASSBENDER / AFP)

 

Going to athletics, Nigeria’s Ese Brume is eyeing a historic medal as the World Indoors Championship begins.

The Olympics long jump bronze medalist wants to become the only third Nigerian to win medals in all three global athletics championships including the Olympics.

She has clinched bronze at the World Outdoor Championships in 2019 and is hoping to join Glory Alozie and late Sunday Bada as athletes who have won medals at the World Athletics Championships indoors and out and the Olympics.

‘Not Impossible’: Resurgent Barca Eye La Liga Title

In this file photo, Barcelona’s Gabonese midfielder Pierre-Emerick Aubameyang (C) celebrates with teammates after scoring his team’s fourth goal during the UEFA Europa League knockout round play-off second leg football match between SSC Napoli and FC Barcelona at the Diego Armando Maradona Stadium in Naples on February 24, 2022. ANDREAS SOLARO / AFP

 

La Liga has adopted a familiar look with Barcelona and Atletico Madrid back in the top four and both teams might now begin to believe they can finish second as Sevilla continue to stumble.

Barcelona, in particular, look primed for a late surge after winning four games on the bounce, their January signings giving them a boost just when they needed it most.

They still have seven points to overturn to reach second but Xavi Hernandez’s side do have a game in hand, as well as a meeting with Sevilla to come next month at Camp Nou.

Such is the optimism around Barcelona that Xavi was even asked on Wednesday if they could yet win the title, although for Real Madrid to spurn a 15-point advantage with 11 games to go, 12 in Barca’s case, seems unthinkable.

“Mathematics say that we can win the league, so why not?” Xavi said. “The others are failing but not Real Madrid. They have time on their side. It’s very difficult, but not impossible.”

READ ALSOGuardiola Sympathises With Chelsea’s Tuchel After Sanctions

In this file photo, newly-appointed FC Barcelona’s Spanish coach Xavi Hernandez (R), flanked by FC Barcelona’s Spanish president Joan Laporta, poses with his jersey during the presentation ceremony at the Camp Nou stadium in Barcelona on November 8, 2021. LLUIS GENE / AFP

 

Still, a second-place finish would mark an impressive turnaround for Barca and Xavi, who took over in November with the team lying ninth. If the league began on January 1, Barcelona would be top.

They should continue their strong run at home to 11th-placed Osasuna on Sunday, with their next game at Real Madrid on March 20, after the second leg against Galatasaray in the Europa League.

“La Liga and the Europa League are the two goals but the first is to be in the Champions League next year,” said Xavi. “We’re already third and the goals now are the two remaining titles. La Liga doesn’t lie to you.”

Madrid had been giving encouragement to the chasing pack after winning only three out of seven games between December and February.

But their 4-1 trouncing of Real Sociedad last weekend was ominously convincing while a momentous comeback against Paris Saint-Germain in the Champions League on Wednesday hardly suggested a team about to let up.

With Karim Benzema fit and firing again, Madrid, who play at Mallorca on Monday night, look more likely to extend their eight-point cushion in the coming weeks than throw it away.

“Karim is back to being the best Karim, the Karim he was before his injury,” Carlo Ancelotti said on Tuesday.

Sevilla Stumbling

They have rarely felt any sustained pressure from Sevilla, who have drawn five out of their last seven league games and against lesser opposition too. Valencia, Celta Vigo, Osasuna, Espanyol and Alaves were all able to claim a share of the spoils against Julen Lopetegui’s side.

That has allowed Madrid to cruise clear and leaves Sevilla suddenly looking down rather than up. A visit to Rayo Vallecano, who are on a dreadful run themselves, should at least get them back to winning ways on Sunday.

Atletico Madrid still face a scrap to qualify for the Champions League, despite their 3-1 victory over fellow top-four hopefuls Real Betis last weekend.

That puts Atletico two points ahead of Betis but the scoreline flattered Diego Simeone’s side, who have an awkward game at Cadiz on Friday, four days before their second leg against Manchester United in the Champions League. It might be too soon to think Atletico have turned a corner.

Betis will want to keep up the pressure on Atleti with a win at home to Athletic Bilbao on Saturday, while Villarreal and Real Sociedad, in sixth and seventh, are still in contention but have ground to make up after defeats last weekend.

Villarreal host Celta Vigo on Saturday and Real Sociedad are at home to struggling Alaves on Sunday.

Fixtures (times GMT)

Friday

Atletico Madrid v Cadiz (2000)

Saturday

Levante v Espanyol (1300), Granada v Elche (1515), Villarreal v Celta Vigo (1730), Getafe v Valencia (2000)

Sunday

Rayo Vallecano v Sevilla (1300), Real Betis v Athletic Bilbao (1515), Real Sociedad v Alaves (1730), Barcelona v Osasuna (2000)

Monday

Mallorca v Real Madrid (2000)

AFP

FIRST 11: Abramovich Hands Over Chelsea + Last Week’s Biggest Sports Stories

First 11 captures the most important sports stories for the week.

 

It’s now four days since Russia invaded Ukraine. While the military action has continued, sporting activities have also been affected. Chelsea’s owner Roman Abramovich has handed over the club to their board of trustees, becoming one of the biggest sporting impacts of the conflict.

First 11 covers this, the Super Falcon’s qualification for the Africa Women’s Cup of Nations, their delay at the Abuja airport, and other major sports stories last week.

Abramovich Hands Over Chelsea

A file photo of Chelsea owner, Roman Abramovich.

 

Russian billionaire Roman Abramovich handed over Chelsea to the club’s board of trustees on Saturday.  His move followed sanctions against Russian entities after the invasion of Ukraine.

Abramovich is an oligarch, one of the groups targeted by western sanctions. Earlier, UK lawmakers said they were planning to take over Chelsea after linking Abramovich to the Russian state and his reported involvement in corrupt practices.

Russian GP Cancelled

This file photograph taken on September 24, 2021l shows drivers as they steer their cars during the second practice session for the Formula One Russian Grand Prix at the Sochi Autodrom circuit in Sochi.  Alexander NEMENOV / AFP

 

Apart from this, Formula One authorities also cancelled the Russian Grand Prix billed for September 25 as fighting continued into the second day in the Eastern European nation.

Earlier, world champion Max Verstappen and four-time champion Sebastian Vettel had said they won’t be taking part in the testing in Barcelona, an opposition to driving at the Russian Grand Prix.

UEFA Changes Champions League Host

(FILES) In this file photo taken on February 28, 2020 shows the UEFA logo at the organization's headquarters in Nyon. Fabrice COFFRINI / AFP
This file photo taken on February 28, 2020, shows the UEFA logo at the organization’s headquarters in Nyon. Fabrice COFFRINI / AFP

 

Formula One was not the only sporting body that took a drastic decision since the invasion. Europe’s football governing body moved the Champions League final from Saint Petersburg to Stade de France in France’s capital of Paris. The final will hold on Saturday, May 28, 2022.

‘No To War’ 

A photo combination of Russian President, Vladimir Putin, and Fedor Smolov.

 

During the week, Fedor Smolov became the first Russian footballer to publicly oppose his country’s invasion of  Ukraine. The 32-year-old  Dynamo Moscow took to social media to condemn the action and wrote: “No to war” on Instagram.  A day before that, Ukrainian forward Roman Yaremchuk celebrated a Champions League goal for his Portuguese side Benfica by revealing a shirt bearing his country’s coat of arms.

Elanga Keeps Man U’s Hopes Alive

In this file photo, Manchester United’s players celebrate after Swedish forward Anthony Elanga scored a goal during the UEFA Champions League football match between Atletico de Madrid and Manchester United at the Wanda Metropolitano stadium in Madrid on February 23, 2022. JAVIER SORIANO / AFP

 

In other matches in Europe’s elite competition, Chelsea became one of the first teams to put one leg in the next round. They saw off Lille, 2-0, in the first leg of the last 16 game at Stamford Bridge. Kai Havertz and Christian Pulisic scored the goals for the defending champions.

A day later, Anthony Elanga netted a late winner to help Manchester United peg Atletico Madrid. The second-round game ended 1-1. The Spanish side had led for much of the match, thanks to a goal from Joao Felix. But Manchester United stroked home an equaliser with just ten minutes to time, cancelling Felix’s seventh-minute effort. Villareal and Juventus had the same scoreline just as Benfica drew 2-2 with Ajax in other Champions League ties.

Barcelona Outclass Napoli

Barcelona’s Gabonese midfielder Pierre-Emerick Aubameyang (C) celebrates with teammates after scoring his team’s fourth goal during the UEFA Europa League knockout round play-off second leg football match between SSC Napoli and FC Barcelona at the Diego Armando Maradona Stadium in Naples on February 24, 2022. ANDREAS SOLARO / AFP

 

After the Champions League, action returned to Europa League as Barcelona outclassed Napoli to reach the last 16. The Catalans won 4-2 to end the tie 5-3 after the first leg finished 1-1.

“We dominated for 90 minutes and that’s the first time we’ve done that since I became coach,” Xavi told reporters after the match. “It’s a win over a team which I repeat is a Champions League-level team, one which does not concede many goals and is fighting for the league title.”

Falcons Qualify For AWCON

The Super Falcons are the defending African champions. [email protected]

 

At the home front, the Super Falcons of Nigeria qualified for the African Women’s Cup of Nations (AWCON). The defending champions beat Ivory Coast 0-1 on Wednesday to end the game on a 3-0 aggregate. It was sweet revenge for the Nigerian girls who had lost to the Lady Elephants in the qualification series for the football event of the Tokyo Olympics.

‘Unfortunate’ Welcome

The Super Falcons were delayed for hours at the airport.

 

But their victory was marred by the controversy that greeted them once they touched down in the country. They were held up at the Nnamdi Azikiwe International Airport in Abuja over COVID-19 protocols. Officials of the Nigeria Centre for Disease Control (NCDC) demanded that the players and officials undergo a round of routine tests and pay a certain amount of money before. This is despite having done tests less than 24 hours before arrival in Nigeria.

While reacting to the incident, the Nigeria Football Federation (NFF), apologised to the ladies, describing the development as ‘unfortunate’.

“We are a responsible organization and the various National Teams have been going out and returning to Nigeria since these covid19 protocols, procedures, and guidelines started. We have never been caught napping, “NFF General Secretary, Dr Mohammed Sanusi said.

Sanusi added: “It was beyond us, but we have already apologized to our players and officials over this incident.”

‘Jollof’ Derby Gets New Date

(Top L-R) Nigeria’s goalkeeper Maduka Okoye, midfielder Wilfred Ndidi, defender Kenneth Omeruo, forward Taiwo Awoniyi, midfielder Joe Aribo, defender William Troost-Ekong, (bottom L-R) forward Kelechi Iheanacho, defender Ola Aina, defender Zaidu Sanusi, forward Moses Simon and forward Samuel Chukwueze pose prior to the Africa Cup of Nations (CAN) 2021 round of 16 football match between Nigeria and Tunisia at Stade Roumde Adjia in Garoua on January 23, 2022. Daniel BELOUMOU OLOMO / AFP

 

On the other hand, their male counterpart have their 2022 World Cup play-off date shifted. The Confederation of African Football (CAF) moved the first leg from March 24 to 25 while the return fixture, previously billed for March 27, will take place at the Moshood Abiola (MKO) National Stadium in Abuja on March 29.

 

FIFA Sanctions Kenya, Zimbabwe

FIFA Bans Ex-Zambian Football Chief Bwalya Over Bribery Allegations
FIFA Logo

 

On Thursday, FIFA suspended the Kenyan and Zimbabwean football federations over government interference.

“Without prejudice to investigations by national authorities or other judiciary bodies, the FIFA Council has decided to suspend the Kenya Football Federation and the Zimbabwe Football Federation with immediate effect for undue influence by a third party,” FIFA said in a statement.

FIFA President Gianni Infantino said the sanction was due to “government interference in the activities of the football federation”.

“They know what needs to be done for the suspension to be lifted,” he said.

D’Tigress Make Giant Leap

The Nigerian girls are the African champions. Photo: FIBA.

 

Meanwhile, the D’Tigress moved up the FIBA rankings on the back of their impressive showing at the world cup qualifiers. The female team are now 14th on the globe, going one place up from their previous ranking. They are trailing South Korea who are in the 13th position.

Nigeria grabbed their ticket for the competition after two wins in three matches. They had lost to China in their opening tie but victories against France and Mali earned them a spot in Australia.

 Barcelona Defeat Napoli, Reach Europa League Last 16

Barcelona’s Gabonese midfielder Pierre-Emerick Aubameyang (C) celebrates with teammates after scoring his team’s fourth goal during the UEFA Europa League knockout round play-off second leg football match between SSC Napoli and FC Barcelona at the Diego Armando Maradona Stadium in Naples on February 24, 2022. ANDREAS SOLARO / AFP

 

Barcelona cruised into the last 16 of the Europa League on Thursday after comfortably seeing off Napoli 4-2 to go through 5-3 on aggregate in a serious show of force.

The Catalan giants were on top almost from the off in Naples thanks to Jordi Alba expertly finishing a lightning counter-attack from a Napoli corner, and Frenkie de Jong’s superb long-range effort effectively ended the tie with three quarters of the match to play.

Xavi’s thrilling side could have had more before Lorenzo Insigne briefly gave the hosts hope from the penalty spot midway through the first half, and Gerard Pique made absolutely sure there would be no Napoli comeback on the stroke of half-time.

A sobering night for Napoli, who are chasing a first Serie A title in three decades, was capped just before the hour mark by Pierre-Emerick Aubameyang, impressive upfront for a dynamic Barca team that looks like it can go all the way in the competition.

“We dominated for 90 minutes and that’s the first time we’ve done that since I became coach,” Xavi told reporters.

“It’s a win over a team which I repeat is a Champions League-level team, one which does not concede many goals and is fighting for the league title.”

Matteo Politano pulled one back in the dying minutes but it was a stroll for Barca into Friday’s draw for the last 16, whose matches will be played on March 10 and 17.

“We made life difficult for ourselves with that awful start… You need to press Barcelona together as a team otherwise you will be in trouble as they will just pass it around you,” Politano told Sky Sport Italia.

Napoli fans applaud Barca

The night began with plenty of enthusiasm at the Stadio Diego Armando Maradona as the two teams lined up with a banner which read “Stop War” in protest at Russia’s invasion of Ukraine which garnered loud applause.

However, Napoli immediately handed the initiative to Barca, a dreadful short corner cleared to Adana Traore who raced up the field and fed Alba, who calmly slotted home the opener.

That error, and the blisteringly quick manner in which it was punished, rattled the home side and when De Jong curled in an exquisite second the match and tie was all-but done and dusted.

Sergio Dest and Aubameyang then had shots whistle by Alex Meret’s goal as the home fans began to voice their displeasure at their team’s timid efforts.

Napoli were given a lifeline by Marc-Andre ter Stegen, who came charging out to beat Victor Osimhen to the ball but took out the Nigerian and after a VAR check ended up giving away a penalty.

Insigne slotted home the 23rd-minute spot-kick but Barca continued their dominance and the home fans let out a sigh of relief when Aubameyang somehow headed wide from point-blank range.

Any illusion of Napoli getting through was ended on the stroke of half-time, when they failed to clear a corner and Pique scuffed a left-footed shot past Meret.

Barca’s dominance was such that when Aubameyang ended a long spell of possession, and away fan ‘oles’, with a classy finish the Napoli supporters applauded.

The away section garnered more appreciation from their hosts when they started chanting anti-Juventus songs, but the rest of the match was played out in an eerie silence.

The home fans started streaming for the exits with over 10 minutes left as Barca contented themselves by stroking the ball around, and Politano’s nicely-taken consolation goal drew little more than a polite ripple from a long-since beaten crowd.

AFP

First 11: Ex-Nigerian Player Turns Bus Driver + Biggest Sports Stories This Week

 

 

Another action-packed week is rolling by and sports fans will look back to relish the beautiful and at other times, sad memories of the past seven days. 

Like previous editions, First 11, captures some of these moments, helping you make sense of the ever-busy sporting world!

Olympic Gold Medallist Turns Taxi Driver

Obiekwu played alongside former Arsenal star, Kanu Nwankwo. [email protected]://twitter.com/EmedosiN

 

Former Nigerian defender, Kingsley Obiekwu, made headlines during the week after news broke that he had become a taxi driver. Obiekwu was part of the U-23 side that won Africa’s first football gold medal at the 1996 Atlanta Games.  Social media was on meltdown as the news made it to the internet. Many lamented the current state of the former defender.

In the wake of the discovery, Super Eagles skipper, Ahmed Musa, reportedly donated N2m to the ex-player who now lives in Enugu State. The Olympic gold medallist said he opened up on his condition so he could get help. Aside from Kanu Nwankwo, Obiekwu said he has had limited interactions with his former teammates. According to him, he picked up the driving job to augment his football management duties.

FG Settles Athletes

Enoch Adegoke and Usheoritse Itsekiri

 

Earlier in the week, the Federal Government paid the medical bills of two athletes injured during the Olympic Games last year. Enoch Adegoke and Usheoritse Itsekiri suffered hamstring injuries while competing at the Games. The Federal Ministry of Youth and Sports Development confirmed the payment of two million, one hundred and seventy thousand naira each to the athletes.

Okagbare Banned

Blessing Okagbare tests positive for human growth hormone and EPO that forces her to pull out of the Tokyo Olympics
A file photo taken on July 30, 2021, shows Nigeria’s Blessing Okagbare at the Olympic Stadium in Tokyo on July 30, 2021. Jewel SAMAD / AFP

 

But there was also bad news for the country’s athletics as the Athletics Integrity Unit (AIU) slammed a 10-year ban on 2008 long jump silver medallist, Blessing Okagbare.

“The Disciplinary Tribunal has banned Nigerian sprinter Blessing Okagbare for a total of 10 years,” the AIU said.

The 33-year-old was earlier expelled from the 2020 Olympics. The dismissal was just before the women’s 100m semi-finals after she tested positive for human growth hormone at an out-of-competition test in Slovakia on July 19.

D’Tigress Seals World Cup Qualification

The Nigerian girls are the African champions. Photo: FIBA.

 

But the female basketball team gave Nigerians more reasons to cheer after they sealed their qualification for the 2022 World Cup. The D’Tigress defeated Mali in their final qualification game on Sunday to hoist the country’s flag at the championship billed for September in Australia.

The Nigerian side had bounced back from defeat to China in their first game before stunning France to keep their qualification hopes alive in Belgrade, Serbia.

A ‘Non-Negotiable’ Deal

Nigeria take on Ghana for the World Cup playoff. Credit: [email protected] Pinnick.

 

The Super Eagles are also aiming to replicate the D’Tigress feat when they take on Ghana in a 2022 World Cup play-off next month.

During a meeting with UK-based players, the President of the Nigeria Football Federation (NFF), Amaju Pinnick, maintained that qualification for the tournament is sacrosanct.  The football chief, who visited the players alongside the coaching crew, assured that the NFF will support the team in their quest for a ticket to Qatar later in the year. The players also expressed optimism that the three-time African champions will make it to the competition.

Mbappe Steals Show

Paris Saint-Germain's French forward Kylian Mbappe (C) shoots and scores a goal during the UEFA Champions League round of 16 first leg football match between Paris Saint-Germain (PSG) and Real Madrid at the Parc des Princes stadium in Paris on February 15, 2022. Alain JOCARD / AFP
Paris Saint-Germain’s French forward Kylian Mbappe (C) shoots and scores a goal during the UEFA Champions League round of 16 first leg football match between Paris Saint-Germain (PSG) and Real Madrid at the Parc des Princes stadium in Paris on February 15, 2022. Alain JOCARD / AFP

 

Moving away from Nigeria, the UEFA Champions League returned midweek as Paris Saint-Germain (PSG)’s game with Real Madrid headlined the latest round of matches. Youngster, Kyrian Mbappe, stole the show in Paris, outshining Lionel Messi as the French team defeated the former European champions. Mbappe grabbed a late winner in the last 16 tie as the clash ended one nil in PSG’s favour.

Barcelona’s Struggle Continue

Barcelona's Spanish defender Gerard Pique (L) vies with Napoli's Nigeria's forward Victor Osimhen during the Europa League football match between FC Barcelona and SSC Napoli at the Camp Nou stadium in Barcelona on February 17, 2022. Josep LAGO / AFP
Barcelona’s Spanish defender Gerard Pique (L) vies with Napoli’s Nigeria’s forward Victor Osimhen during the Europa League football match between FC Barcelona and SSC Napoli at the Camp Nou stadium in Barcelona on February 17, 2022. Josep LAGO / AFP

 

After Mbappe’s masterclass, attention turned to the Europa League where Barcelona and Napoli battled for supremacy. The Catalan’s poor run, however, continued as they struggled to hold the Italian side to a 1-1 draw at the Nou Camp. Thursday’s draw will be a major concern for Xavi who is rebuilding the team following the departure of Messi.

Manchester United’s Captaincy Row

A file photo of Manchester United’s Captain, Harry Maguire and Cristiano Ronaldo

 

Former winners of the competition, Manchester United, are in the news over a captaincy row between Cristiano Ronaldo and Harry Maguire. Multiple reports had suggested that the duo is at loggerheads over the team’s leadership. Interim coach, Ralf Rangnick, is, however, not ready to stripe the England international of the armband despite calls for that. The player himself dismissed reports of a dressing room row at the Old Trafford.

Robinho’s Wanted!

Italy's highest court has upheld former Brazil forward Robinho's nine-year sentence for the gang rape of a young woman
Photo Credit: Gistmattaz

 

On Wednesday, Italian authorities issued an international arrest warrant for former Brazillian player, Robinho. The move followed the confirmation of the former AC Milan player’s conviction for rape. The Italian Ministry of Justice has also asked Interpol to enact the warrant.

A Milan court had in 2017 found Robinho and five other Brazilians guilty of gang-raping a lady after plying her with alcohol in a discotheque. The conviction was confirmed by an appeals court in 2020 and validated by Italy’s Supreme Court in January. Brazil, however, does not extradite its nationals, meaning the former Manchester City star faces arrest when he leaves his country.

Djokovic Eyes Comeback

In this file photo, Novak Djokovic of Serbia takes part in a practice session ahead of the Australian Open tennis tournament in Melbourne on January 13, 2022. Mike FREY / AFP

 

Serbian star, Novak Djokovic, is eager to return to the court and is eyeing a comeback in Dubai. The World number one was at the centre of a vaccine row which pushed him out from defending his Australian Open crown.

Djokovic, who was deported from Australia over his vaccination status and toured the Serbian pavilion at Dubai Expo, said he missed the game.

“I am excited to go back and play on Monday,” he said, referring to the Dubai ATP tournament during brief remarks to the media. “I miss tennis after all that has happened.”

West Ham Drop Zouma

West Ham United’s French defender Kurt Zouma warms up ahead of the English Premier League football match between West Ham and Watford at the London Stadium, in London on February 8, 2022. Glyn KIRK / AFP

 

In England, West Ham coach, David Moyes, said Kurt Zouma was dropped for the 2-2 draw with Everton due to illness. The defender was listed in the squad for the clash despite criticisms over a viral video showing him abusing his cat. West Ham had earlier fined the player for the act, days after the former Chelsea player apologised for the incident.

Barcelona Clash With Napoli Headlines Europa League Play-Offs

 

Barcelona and Napoli Clash will Headline the Europa League
File COMBO of Luciano Spalletti and Xavi

 

Barcelona’s new reality will hit home on Thursday when they play in Europe’s second-tier club competition for the first time in 18 years as Napoli visit the Camp Nou in the Europa League.

The Catalans crashed out of the Champions League in the group stage with just two goals scored in six matches, the arrival of Xavi Hernandez not enough to revive their fortunes in a competition they have won five times.

A meeting with a Napoli side currently fighting for the Serie A title would be worthy of the continent’s elite club competition, and indeed the sides met in the last 16 of the Champions League just two years ago.

Yet Barca instead face a real challenge in this play-off tie just to make it through to the last 16 as they try to salvage some pride in Europe and go all the way to the final in Seville in May.

“It is not a favourable draw. They are one of the toughest sides we could have faced, a Champions League-level team,” Xavi said when the draw was made.

The Catalans, who lie fourth in La Liga a huge 15 points behind leaders Real Madrid, had appeared in the knockout rounds of the Champions League in each of the last 17 seasons, last missing out in 2003-04 when they played in the UEFA Cup.

Barcelona were not the only high-profile name to be knocked out of the Champions League prematurely, with Borussia Dortmund also dropping down into the Europa League.

The Germans will face Scottish champions Rangers with the first leg at the Signal Iduna Park as the home side wait to see if Erling Haaland will play.

The Norwegian, scorer of 23 goals in 21 games in all competitions this season, has missed Dortmund’s last two outings against Bayer Leverkusen and Union Berlin in the Bundesliga.

Sevilla also dropped out of the Champions League but that might suit a club that have won the Europa League or its predecessor, the UEFA Cup, a record six times including most recently in 2020.

– Away goals no more –
They will also be driven by the prospect of going all the way to the final in their own stadium as they entertain Dinamo Zagreb in the play-offs.

There is English Premier League representation in the play-offs of the new Europa Conference League, with Leicester City taking on Danish outfit Randers.

Celtic will play the Norwegian champions Bodo/Glimt who have not played a competitive match since wrapping up their domestic campaign two months ago.

“Bodo are similar to us when we go in to our Champions League qualifiers as they are in pre-season mode at the minute,” Celtic boss Ange Postecoglou told Scottish media.

“That could potentially work both ways. We have the match sharpness, but they could have a freshness about them.”

The Conference League features other former European champions in the shape of PSV Eindhoven and Marseille, who take on Israel’s Maccabi Tel-Aviv and Qarabag of Azerbaijan respectively.

The second legs in both competitions will be played next week and, like in the Champions League, the away goals rule has been scrapped, meaning ties will go straight to extra time and penalties if level at the end of the return match.

Fixtures on Thursday (2000 GMT unless stated)

Europa League knockout round play-offs, first legs

Barcelona (ESP) v Napoli (ITA) (1745 GMT)

Zenit Saint Petersburg (RUS) v Real Betis (ESP) (1745 GMT)

Borussia Dortmund (GER) v Rangers (SCO) (1745 GMT)

Sheriff Tiraspol (MDA) v Braga (POR) (1745 GMT)

Sevilla (ESP) v Dinamo Zagreb (CRO)

Atalanta (ITA) v Olympiakos (GRE)

RB Leipzig (GER) v Real Sociedad (ESP)

Porto (POR) v Lazio (ITA)

Europa Conference League knockout round play-offs, first legs

PSV Eindhoven (NED) v Maccabi Tel-Aviv (ISR) (1745 GMT)

Fenerbahce (TUR) v Slavia Prague (CZE) (1745 GMT)

Midtjylland (DEN) v PAOK (GRE) (1745 GMT)

Rapid Vienna (AUT) v Vitesse Arnhem (NED) (1745 GMT)

Marseille (FRA) v Qarabag (AZE)

Leicester City (ENG) v Randers (DEN)

Celtic (SCO) v Bodo/Glimt (NOR)

Sparta Prague (CZE) v Partizan Belgrade (SRB)