Spurs, Liverpool out to clinch knockout berths
PARIS (AFP) –
English Premier League duo Liverpool and Tottenham Hotspur head a list of nine clubs vying for the five remaining berths in the last 32 of the Europa League as the group stage reaches its climax.
Tottenham must simply avoid defeat at home to Group J foes Panathinaikos on Thursday to advance, while victory at Udinese would assure Liverpool’s progression from Group A, although a draw would suffice should Young Boys fail to beat already-qualified Anzhi Makhachkala.
Tottenham’s inconsistent form this term has taken a sharp upwards turn lately with three straight league wins propelling them back into the top four, and striker Jermain Defoe finding the back of the net with regularity in recent weeks.
“We want to get through to the knockout stage of the competition and as we’ve said all along, we want to do something special this season. Things are going well at the moment and we’ve just got to keep it going,” said the England forward.
“The European nights are special and there is so much history here. We always have fantastic support and that helps the lads to perform,” added Defoe, who was recently compared to Atletico Madrid‘s in-demand striker Radamel Falcao by Spurs boss Andre Villas-Boas.
The north Londoners are second with seven points from five matches and trail leaders and qualified Lazio by two points.
A Spurs’ victory could conceivably see Villas-Boas’ side pip the Italians to top spot, but defeat would end their European dreams with Panathinaikos going through at their expense.
Tottenham will also be without Gareth Bale after the Welsh star injured his hamstring in Saturday’s 3-0 win at Fulham.
An 88th-minute strike from Young Boys defender Elsad Zverotic at Anfield last time out kept the Swiss outfit’s qualification hopes alive, denying Liverpool from clinching a place in the knockout phase in the process.
Brendan Rodgers’ men travel to eliminated Italian side Udinese, knowing that three points would erase the pain of Zverotic’s late equaliser and put them through to the next stage of the tournament.
The five-time European champions are going through a transitional period following the appointment of Rodgers in the close-season and have experienced their fair share of growing pains, but the Northern Irishman believes the return of Lucas Leiva from injury will provide the club with a substantial boost, particularly going forward.
“With Lucas you can see all of a sudden with the right profile player in the right position it frees up the offensive threats,” said Rodgers.
“I thought the rhythm and balance of the game was great with him there,” he added, referring to Liverpool’s display in their 1-0 win over Southampton at the weekend.
Luis Suarez, who has shouldered much of the responsibility in attack, is likely to play a prominent role on Thursday after incurring a one-match domestic suspension following his fifth caution in the league that will rule him out of Sunday’s trip to West Ham.
“I’m not going to lose sleep over it, and at least it means he will more than likely start now against Udinese in the Europa League. We’ll be strong when we get over there,” said Rodgers about the Uruguayan’s impending absence.
Liverpool control their own destiny, but a second defeat to Udinese — the Serie A won 3-2 at Anfield in October — would spell the end of the road for the Reds, with Young Boys taking their place in the last 32.
Elsewhere, Steaua Bucharest, VfB Stuttgart and FC Copenhagen all still harbour hopes of progressing from Group E.
Steaua take on Denmark in Copenhagen needing to avoid defeat in order to advance, although a loss by a one-goal margin — other than 1-0 — would also put them through, while Copenhagen must win to stand any chance of staying alive.
Stuttgart can secure their ticket to the next round by beating Norwegian side Molde.
Meanwhile, Basel and Videoton will vie for the final qualification spot in Group G.
Videoton must beat bottom side Sporting Lisbon and hope Swiss title-holders Basel succumb to leaders Genk if they are to progress.