If anybody was in doubt whether the three English teams remaining in the Europa League are on form ahead of their return legs in the round of the last-32, Sunday’s league results should give an answer.
Between them, Arsenal, Manchester United and Wolves scored nine goals – three apiece – as they kept alive their hopes of qualifying for the prestigious Europa League again.
And that is not the only thing counting in their favour as they head into the midweek fixtures: All three go into their games with an advantage.
Wolves should have their place in the round of the last-16 all but guaranteed as they travel to Barcelona for their clash against Espanyol with a 4-0 advantage.
Espanyol coach Abelardo Fernandez is unlikely to put on his strongest team as he desperately seeks to get the points that they need to escape their precarious La Liga position (they are currently last).
“Wolves were clinical and we were not as clinical as them. Looking at the tie you have to say it’s difficult to come back from 4-0,” the coach said.
His Wolves counterpart, Nuno Santo is hoping that Portuguese forward Diogo Jota can continue with his excellent scoring form. The 23-year-old scored back-to-back hat-tricks in the Europa League and added two against Norwich in the league on Sunday.
“We know a player’s performance goes up and down. It’s about the right decisions, the right solutions, to keep sustaining his performance. Of course, I’m delighted with his goals. He was clinical Thursday and again, so hopefully, it continues,” he said.
Although less emphatic, Arsenal also secured a great result in the first leg, as Alxandre Lacazette scored a late goal for the Gunners to give them a 1-0 victory at Olympiacos.
Arsenal goalkeeper Bernd Leno, who played his first Europa League match of the season, said that they were determined to do well in the competition. “We want to go all the way to the final again, to Poland and we want to win this trophy.
“Last season we got to the final and it was very disappointing to lose, so this year we have another chance. I think we have to take it step by step. We have a big game at home and hopefully we will go through to the next round.”
Manchester United, meanwhile, were not as impressive as their Premier League rivals, but still managed a 1-1 draw at Club Brugge.
The Reds’ coach Ole Gunnar Solskjær gave Portuguese international Bruno Fernandes a first outing for the club he joined in the winter break from Sporting Lisbon. The midfielder scored five goals for his former club already in the competition and got on the score sheet for United the first time this weekend.
Even though Fernandes was on the field for only 10 minutes, Solskjær was impressed with his new signing. “You could see that there’s a difference in our team. He’s another conductor and leader and winner. He wants to win. He doesn’t take 99 per cent as good enough and he’s impressed me.
“That’s something you see when you watch him but you don’t know about until you have him in your group. He’s been top class.”
The round kicks off on Wednesday with Glasgow Rangers defending a 3-2 victory at Braga, while the other games will be played Thursday.
African football fans will be able to see all the action – live and HD – on the StarTimes football channels as the continent’s leading digital-TV operator has secured the exclusive broadcasting rights for the competition.
Peter Auf der Heyde
Peter Auf der Heyde is an award-winning football journalist and author, who covers the big European leagues. As a South African by birth, he is particularly interested in the African connection within European football and has covered 12 consecutive Africa Cup of Nations tournaments live. Formerly head of sport at the English service of the German Press Association, he is one of the leading Bundesliga experts.
Auf der Heyde played professionally for Bosmont Chelsea in the South African top flight and now spends his time migrating between South Africa, Germany and the UK.