The Europa League produced a well-balanced quarter-final draw with no straightforward pathway to the final in Baku for any of the big hitters, but one tie stood out from the rest. Arsenal’s pairing with Napoli is a mouth-watering encounter between two sides packed with attacking threat and managed by two heavyweight European coaches.
The winner of that quarter-final will play the last remaining La Liga side, with Villarreal and Valencia pitted against each other in a tie which Marcelino’s Valencia are expected to come through, given their opponents’ fight just to stay in the Spanish top flight this season.
On the other side of the draw, Chelsea are the favourites to reach the final, not least because they were handed arguably the softest team left in the hat, Slavia Prague. Maurizio Sarri’s team have produced some wildly inconsistent performances domestically but in Europe they have been more reliable, and destroyed Dynamo Kiev 8-0 in the last round. The ace up Sarri’s sleeve is that he has barely used Eden Hazard so far in the campaign, and it means Chelsea still have another gear to go to when they eventually need it.
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Chelsea should not underestimate the Czech league leaders, who have an impeccable European record in Prague this season and carry momentum from an enthralling last-ditch win over Sevilla in the previous round – pushing Sevilla to sack manager Machin on Friday. Yet they should progress, and would then face either Benfica or Frankfurt in the semi-finals.
This is a tie more akin to Arsenal vs Napoli in terms of its balance. Benfica are top of the Portuguese league and are fronted by the Swiss striker Haris Seferovic, the top scorer in Portugal this season. They might be slight favourites but Frankfurt are having a strong season of their own under Adi Hutter in the Bundesliga, whose preferred wing-back system has seen Croatia’s Ante Rebic flourish behind a front two containing the impressive 21-year-old Serbian Luka Jovic, whose solitary goal knocked out Inter in the last round.
The winner of Benfica vs Frankfurt may meet Chelsea but they will at least be pleased to have steered clear of Arsenal and Napoli, knowing one of those two big threats will be knocked out.
The Europa League has been Unai Emery’s playground for much of his managerial career, winning three successive titles with Sevilla, and in Pierre-Emerick Aubameyang he has a world-class striker that few other sides left in the competition can match. But Ancelotti is also something of a cup specialist too, with three Champions Leagues to his name, and the triple threat of Arkadiusz Milik, Dries Mertens and Lorenzo Insigne will provide the Arsenal defence with a far sterner test than the Rennes side which took them to the wire in the previous round.
It is the headline tie of a well-balanced set of quarter-finals, and the winner is likely to be immediately installed as the favourite to triumph in Baku on 29 July.
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