Tottenham-Inter clash highlight of Europa last 16
PARIS (AFP) –
They could be forgiven for dreaming of more lucrative adventures in the Champions League come next season, but on Thursday both Tottenham and Chelsea will have their eyes focused on a place in the Europa League quarter-finals.
Both must put thoughts of the Champions League aside at least for 90 minutes, with Spurs hosting Inter Milan at White Hart Lane while Chelsea travel to Steaua Bucharest.
Spurs, twice winners of Europa League predecessor tournament the UEFA Cup, would have been competing in the Champions League this season had Chelsea’s triumph in the final over Bayern Munich not torpedoed those ambitions.
However, the Blues themselves suffered the heartache of being dumped into the Europa melting pot when they became the first Champions League winners to exit the group stage.
Much water has flowed under Chelsea’s Stamford Bridge since they saw off Bayern, with Champions League-winning coach Roberto Di Matteo unceremoniously sacked and Rafa Benitez installed as an interim measure — to the dismay of many of the club’s supporters.
Yet Benitez, while recognising that Champions League qualification is the overriding goal, would happily lift a trophy which would enable Chelsea to complete the set of European Cup, the now defunct Cup Winners’ Cup and also UEFA Cup/UEFA Europa League.
To date, only Bayern, Ajax and Juventus have managed to win all three.
Benitez has to juggle with the additional burden of a top four league finish with next weekend’s FA Cup quarter-final at Manchester United also looming.
“We have to go to Bucharest before we can concentrate on (the United) game,” he insisted.
Benitez has a selection dilemma regarding skipper John Terry, who is returning from a knee injury, while Gary Cahill is getting over a virus, leaving Branislav Ivanovic and David Luiz as central defensive partners.
The former Liverpool boss, who won the Champions League at Anfield and the UEFA Cup with Valencia, said of Terry: “He’s training. Match fitness and training sessions are two different things and he’s improving.”
Spurs counterpart Andre Villas-Boas can be satisfied that his side are on a roll after beating Arsenal to move third.
The tie will have a job to reach the thrill levels of the Champions League group matches against Inter two seasons ago, when Gareth Bale hit a hat-trick in the San Siro only to finish on the losing side before Spurs won the return.
Team-mate Michael Dawson says with Bale around anything is possible.
“He’s one of the best players in the world at the moment, and probably the best in the world for me right now.”
Villas-Boas has already won the tournament with Porto, two years ago before his ill-fated spell at Stamford Bridge.
Spurs have twice lifted the UEFA Cup, which Inter have themselves won on three occasions, and the hosts will beware of a side which can boast five wins in six matches on their European travels this term.
Newcastle complete the English contingent but, in the absence of injured skipper Fabricio Coloccini, face a trip into the unknown as they take on Guus Hiddink’s Anji Makhachkala of Russia in Moscow.
Makhachkala have won all their “home” games to date, including a group success over Liverpool. The Caucasus-based side play their home matches in Moscow as their home republic of Dagestan is deemed too dangerous.
Newcastle coach Alan Pardew said: It would be massive if we could beat this team. They are a really strong side.” Particularly as they include former Barcelona striker Samuel Eto’o.
Other ties see former European champions Benfica host Bordeaux and Stuttgart take on Lazio, who have to play two home European matches behind closed doors for their fans’ racist behaviour.