Europa League: Recalling the most memorable round of 16 matches
When pitted against the UEFA Champions League, Europa League nights may not stand out in popularity, but as the competition has grown, fans have been treated to many thrilling matches in the knockout rounds.
As much as a major upset can elevate the tournament's greatness, fans are always eager to see teams - especially underdogs - showing a resolve to push through their limits and script memories worth remembering at the mention of the Europa League's round of 16 schedules. We look back at three landmark clashes that blew away all expectations.
Werder Bremen vs Valencia (2009/10)
The rechristened Europa League, formerly known as UEFA Cup, began on a promising note as its round of 16 saw as many as three ties go to the wire. And, at the top of the lot is the second leg meeting with Werder Bremen and Valencia.
At the Mestalla, the first leg meeting saw a 10-man Valencia secure a hard-fought 1-1 draw, with Juan Mata's 57th-minute strike canceling out Torsten Frings' penalty in the first half. With 11 shots on target, Los Murciélagos ensured they could stand up to the pressure from Die Werderaner and put up a fight in the reverse fixture at the Weserstadion.
Little did anyone know that the second-leg would become the first high-scoring fixture in the Europa League's round of 16. David Villa and Mata gave Valencia a 2-0 lead within the first 20 minutes, and Hugo Almeida drew one back in the 27th minute. Villa's 45th-minute strike took Valencia to a 4-2 lead in the aggregate, before a rapid-fire second half ensued.
The Spanish striker completed his hat-trick in the 65th minute, but his joy was short-lived as goals from Torsten Frings, and Marko Marin brought Bremen back into the tie, before Claudio Pizarro's 84th-minute goal propelled the German side to secure a 4-4. However, by away goals, Valencia moved onto the quarter-finals.
Fulham vs Juventus (2009/10)
In a David vs Goliath story, Roy Hodgson's Fulham overturned their 1-3 deficit from the first leg fixture in Turin to outmuscle an Alessandro del Piero-led Juventus with a 4-1 win at the Craven Cottage.
Goals from Nicola Legrottaglie, Jonathan Zebina, and Samir Salihamidžić made it virtually impossible for the Cottagers to prolong their ambitious run in Europe, but as they say, never say never again.
French striker David Trezeguet gave Juventus an early breakthrough in the second minute to silence the home audience in West London, but a 9th-minute Bobby Zamora goal brought smiles back to the Fulham faithful, igniting hopes of a valiant comeback.
Hungarian attacking midfielder Zoltan Gera's twin strikes in the 39th and 49th minute brought the fixture to a 4-4 aggregate, something that left the entire crowd dumbfounded. Chris Dempsey's introduction injected some confidence into the Fulham side and the American's chip shot over Antonio Chimenti not only completed a 5-4 comeback victory for the Cottagers, but also went down as the English club's greatest ever win against a European opponent.
Athletic Club vs Manchester United (2011/12)
The last season of Sir Alex Ferguson was predominantly defined by Manchester United's 13th Premier League title - their 20th English championship trophy. But an unimpressive campaign in Europe perhaps left a stain on what could have been fairytale ending.
Upon climbing down the ladder to the Europa League, onlookers were convinced that the Red Devils would eventually run out as winners of the competition. But Spanish side Athletic Club spoiled the party as they not only won both their round of 16 legs, but also saw the English giants lose back-to-back European home games for the first time since 1996.
The first leg, played at Old Trafford, saw Athletic Bilbao score three past United - the first instance against an English opponent but a Wayne Rooney double gave them hopes of a possible comeback.
Fernando Llorente's glorious volley in the 23rd minute and Óscar De Marcos' 66th-minute strike compiled further misery on Ferguson's United. Rooney's consolation goal in the 80th minute got the aggregate to 5-3 and thus brought down curtains on the Red Devils' error-riden campaign in Europe in the 2011-12 season.
Feature image courtesy: AFP / Glyn Kirk