Atletico top list of sides eyeing Europa progress
PARIS (AFP) –
Defending champions Atletico Madrid head a list of several teams that can advance to the knockout stages of the Europa League on Thursday, as the group phase reaches the business end.
Group B leaders Atletico, one of three remaining teams with a perfect record thus far, can assure themselves of a berth in the last 32 with a victory against Academica in Coimbra.
However Atletico will be without Colombian star Radamel Falcao and numerous other first-team regulars with manager Diego Simeone electing to name a youthful squad for the trip to Portugal.
Despite a 2-0 loss at Valencia on Saturday — a result that snapped the club’s 23-match unbeaten run in all competitions — Emre Belozoglu, one of the veterans retained by Simeone for Thursday, lauded the team’s unity.
“When I signed for this club, I saw there was a fantastic atmosphere in the squad – it’s like a family,” the Turkish international told UEFA.com.
“If one player plays and another doesn’t, it isn’t a problem. We are all working very hard under a fantastic coach who is like a friend to us – that is a very important thing to have in a team.”
However Atletico’s record 16-game winning streak in Europe remains intact and Emre has his sights set on defending the title.
“Last year we won the UEFA Europa League and we want to win it again,” he said.
“We have a great team and we are going well. If we can continue progressing, we can achieve our goals and hopefully finish a great season in Spain.”
Lyon, who have also recorded three wins from three, will be out to book their spot in the next round against Athletic Bilbao.
Lyon won the corresponding fixture at Stade Gerland 2-1, leaving last year’s finalists Bilbao staring down the barrel in Group I.
Dnipro Dnipropetrovsk are the third team boasting a flawless record, and the Ukrainian outfit will advance from Group F if they can put an end to Napoli’s 15-match unbeaten home run.
A resurgent Inter Milan can ensure they progress with victory at Partizan Belgrade, provided Rubin Kazan, who would also go through with a win, dispose of Azerbaijani minnows Neftci.
The picture is slightly more complicated for Tottenham, however, as their campaign remains grounded after three draws to start Group J.
Spurs sit third, trailing Lazio by two points and unheralded Maribor by one, but summer signing Clint Dempsey believes the Londoners still have every chance of advancing.
“(Maribor) scored first, but we showed the character to get back in the game and put ourselves in a position where we are still right in there in the group,” said the US international, referring to Spurs’ 1-1 draw a fortnight ago in which Gylfi Sigurdsson salvaged a point for Tottenham against Slovenian champions Maribor.
“It’s in our hands and that’s all you can ask for,” stressed Dempsey.
“Everything is still to play for and it’s about taking care of business in the next three games.”
Liverpool and Newcastle both occupy first place in their respective groups — A and D — and can give themselves breathing space with wins on Thursday, but defeats would put the English sides right back into the mix.
Having beaten Anzhi Makhachkala 1-0 at Anfield, Liverpool travel to Dagestan on Thursday with a two-point advantage over their Russian rivals and Udinese, while Young Boys are another point further adrift.
Newcastle have yet to concede in this season’s group phase and are in action at Club Brugge, who sacked former Belgium manager Georges Leekens over the weekend.
The Magpies top their group on seven points with Bordeaux second on four, Brugge third on three and Maritimo bottom with two.