The runners-up in the Europa League group stage have to face off with the third-placed Champions League teams before the line-up for Round of 16 is confirmed, with some big names involved, writes Dan Roberts…
There was no repeat of a botched draw for the Europa League back in December – and with some very big names involved in the second tier of European competition this season, there is a lot to look forward to here.
The headline news was always going to be about Barcelona, but La Blaugrana being paired with Napoli makes this match up sound much more like a Champions League tie. New Barca boss Xavi Hernandez would have been hoping that picking up some silverware in Europe would turn this season into a relative success after months of chaos and farce at Camp Nou. Yet Napoli have looked very impressive in Serie A this season and will fancy their chances of going through, especially with the second leg scheduled to take place at the Diego Armando Maradona Stadium.
There are blockbuster ties wherever you look in the Europa League Knockout Round play-offs. Porto vs. Lazio is another meeting that could have come straight out of the Champions League, whereas RB Leipzig vs Real Sociedad pits together two clubs that have pushed themselves onto the main stage in recent seasons.
Elsewhere, Atalanta and Borussia Dortmund will be confident of making it through to the quarter-finals, having been drawn against Olympiacos and Rangers respectively. But nothing is guaranteed in the Europa League and everyone still involved will now feel as though there is a chance of going further in the competition.
Even the minnows of the round will have their confidence boosted after being drawn together. Sheriff Tiraspol shocked everyone by beating Real Madrid in the Champions League group stage and now the Moldovan champions will look to progress here after being matched up with Braga.
There are many football fans that believe that the Europa League always delivers and can be a more interesting watch than the supposedly more predictable Champions League. With the calibre of teams now taking part, the Knockout Round play-offs and Round of 16 could be some of the best games of the season.