Yes, we’re eagerly looking forward to the big-name UEFA Champions League semifinal ties–but don’t overlook UEFA’s other final four. (Indeed, as Zonal_Marking wrote for ESPN today, the Europa League deserves more respect.) Given our growing interest in La Liga beyond the Big Two, yesterday’s quarterfinal results make for an especially interesting Europa League run-in: Athletic Bilbao, Atlético Madrid, Valencia, and Sporting Clube de Portugal advanced to the semifinals, setting up an all-Iberian set of semifinal ties:
1st legs on Thursday April 19: Atlético Madrid-Valencia & Sporting CP-Athletic Bilbao
2nd legs a week later, Thursday April 26: Valencia-Atlético Madrid & Athletic Bilbao-Atlético Madrid
As we wrote earlier in the week, the Athletic Bilbao-Schalke tie was the only was that was pretty much wrapped up after the 1st leg, with Athletic’s 4-2 win in Germany. But the return leg at the legendary San Mames turned out to be a match worth watching (not that we did, unfortunately). It was a game of tit-for-tat: Dutch marksman Klaus-Jan Huntelaar scored, pulling Schalke to within one goal on aggregate–but then Athletic equalized shortly 4 minutes later. And then it happened a second time: Raul scored yet another European goal, but Athletic equalized 3 minutes later. So Athletic wins another tie in convincing fashion, by an aggregate of 6-4. They have to be considered the favorites to win the whole thing, given how much energy they bring to their Europa fixtures.
The other three ties had 2-1 scorelines for the home team in their first legs: Atletico, AZ Alkmaar, and Sporting CP were leading Hannover, Valencia, and Metallist Kharkiv, respectively.
The match at the Mestalla was one we thought might be worth watching–and it was, in some sense, as Valencia quickly and convincingly turned the tie around. They were up 2-0 by 22′–both goals suprisingly by French international center back Adil Rami, off assists from the impressive Algerian youngster Sofiane Feghouli and the always dangerous Roberto Soldado. They added 2 more scores in the 2nd half–Spanish international wingback Jordi Alba scored one, and Pablo Hernandez added the final goal. The 4-0 win gave them a 5-2 win on aggregate.
The other two ties came down to the final minutes. Sporting CP held on for a 1-1 draw in far eastern Ukraine, eliminating Metallist. And in Hannover, Falcao scored a fantastic late goal to seal the deal for Atlético. Via twitter at approx 5pmET:
1-2, Falcao. “What technique! That is absolutely balletic. Mama mia! Colombian coffee house tricks alright, sweet, sweet.”
— Live Ray Hudson (@liverayhudson) April 5, 2012