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La Liga’s dominance in the Europa League a lesson for the Manchester clubs and Tottenham this season

La Liga’s dominance of Europe’s second most prestigious tournament should serve as a timely reminder of what the Premier League is missing out on.

This week sees the return of the Champions League, with much of the attention focusing on Chelsea’s clash with Barcelona, while Bayern Munich face off against Real Madrid.

Yet for all the glitz and glamour of the tournament, just 24 hours later, another set of European fixtures could make for interesting viewing.

On Thursday evening, Atletico Madrid and Valencia will play in the semi-final of the Europa League while Athletic Bilbao head to Portugal to face Sporting Lisbon.

The line-up stands as a testament to the depth in quality that exists in Spain with Atletico and Bilbao reaching this stage of the competition after navigating a tricky group and knock-out phase.

This was undoubtedly evidenced during Bilbao’s demolition of Manchester United. Entering the competition after being dumped out of the Champions League, United were fortunate to escape with a 3-2 defeat at Old Trafford in the first leg, but even then manager Alex Ferguson sensed the tide of the tie was against them.

Speaking to the BBC then, the Scot admitted that, “They were the better team,” with the second leg to come looking “uphill fight.”

The comments spoke volumes for the quality of Marcelo Bielsa’s Bilbao team, given number of times Ferguson has come out fighting when the Reds have faced seemingly insurmountable odds. They were quickly confirmed too with a 2-1 defeat in the return fixture.

Yet in truth, Spain’s continued love affair with the Europa League should come as little surprise to those who have followed the competition over the years.

From Sevilla’s back-to-back wins in the mid-2000s to the more recent win for the likes of Atletico Madrid and with notable runs for the likes of Espanyol, Getafe and Villarreal, Spanish league sides have always taken a keen interest in the pursuit of the trophy.

It is an understandable focus too, with much of the domestic game swallowed up by the dominance of Real Madrid and Barcelona.

But despite the notable similarities in the English game, with the economic powerhouses of Manchester United, Chelsea and Manchester City dominating proceedings, Premier League perceptions of the competition portray it as a nuisance.

Tottenham manager Harry Redknapp described the competition as “a killer” to his side’s chances of competing for Champions League qualification warning “Thursday and Sunday every week…you’ve got no chance in the Premier League with that”.

Yet the relative progress of a Stoke City team with far less resources than the likes of Tottenham, alongside solid league form, indicates that this may be an incorrect assumption.

Spanish clubs are not the only nation reaping the benefits of Europa League football either, as Germany continues to enjoy relative success in the tournament, with the unfancied Hannover 96 and Schalke 04 progressing to the quarter-finals stage via the group stage.

Is it any coincidence then that Spain, Germany and other Europa League enthusiasts Portugal, excel most at international level?

Encouraging English participation in this tournament could make for a more rounded domestic game, and could offer some solace for fans tired of the continued chase for the so-called ‘success’ of finishing fourth in the Premier League.

Fulham’s previous run in the competition demonstrated the thrills and passion that the Europa League can bring to fans and the game as a whole with few Cottagers fans able to forget the famous victory over Juventus en route to the final.

For the English game to reap any notable reward from the tournament though, a change of perception is required among the likes of Liverpool and Tottenham.

The Europa League is no killer – it could breathe new life into the English game.

By Jack Beresford

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Five strikers the Premier League’s best should be targeting

With the end of the season approaching, the summer transfer market will be back in full swing from June, and the Premier League’s leading sides will look to bolster their squads to challenge again in 2012-13. There is a case for all top six English clubs – Manchester United, Manchester City, Arsenal, Tottenham, Chelsea and Liverpool – to add a new striker to their ranks, with the following five hitmen in-form and within the English sides’ reach.

Klaas-Jan Huntelaar

Club – Schalke
Valuation – 15 million +
Would suit – Tottenham

Huntelaar is a product of the famed Ajax youth academy, but after ill-fated stints at AC Milan and Real Madrid, has come into his own at Schalke. The 28-year-old has scored 22 goals in the Bundesliga this term, challenging for the German top flight and Europa League Golden Boots, and is clearly confident and clinical.

On the international stage, KJH topped the Euro 2012 qualification goalscoring charts with 12 strikes, and is sure to participate for the Netherlands this summer if he stays fit. With the marksman’s contract in Gelsenkirchen expiring in the summer of 2013, the Veltins-Arena outfit may be tempted to cash-in on their star attacker.

Olivier Giroud

Club – Montpellier
Valuation – 15 million +
Would suit – Manchester United

The 25-year-old French forward has come into his own after taking a while to establish himself in his homeland, and has become a difficult opponent for opponents across Ligue 1. Giroud is good with the ball at his feet, powerful in the air and has an eye for goal.

Giroud’s continued goalscoring has powered Montpellier from a mid-table side to title challengers in a year, and seen him break into the senior France squad. Likely to be given his opportunity to really shine at Euro 2012, the suitors may well be queuing up for his services come June.

Roberto Soldado

Club – Valencia
Valuation – 20 million +
Would suit – Chelsea

Since leaving Real Madrid in 2008, Roberto Soldado has been one of the most consistent and clinical strikers in Spain, and this term has been no exception. The intelligent forward has led Los Che’s attack after the summer sale of Juan Mata, and with 16 La Liga goals to his name is in great form.

Soldado’s club efforts have been recognised on the international stage, and despite competition from Alvaro Negredo, Fernando Torres, Fernando Llorente and the returning David Villa, should lead the line for the World Cup holders in Poland and Ukraine.

Leandro Damiao

Club – Internacional
Valuation – 15 million +
Would Suit – Arsenal

Along with Santos’ Neymar, Leandro Damiao of Internacional is in high-demand in Europe after excellent and exciting performances in Brazil. The sprightly 22-year-old has scored almost a goal per game for the Port Alegre outfit over two years, and has been the subject of transfer speculation over the last 12 months.

Damiao’s constant threat at club level has been rewarded with international recognition, with five caps to his name for the Selecao currently. With the player recently announcing that he is ready to go to Europe, there is sure to be a scramble for his signature this summer.

Ricky van Wolfswinkel

Club – Sporting Lisbon
Valuation – 12 million +
Would suit – Liverpool

Another Dutch striker trying to live up to so many legends from the nation before him, Van Wolfswinkel has slowly but surely become a well-known and highly-rated forward across Europe. The 23-year-old has continued where he left of at Utrecht with new club Sporting Lisbon after moving to Portugal last summer, and has seen his stock rise.

A goal against Manchester City at the Etihad Stadium for Sa Pinto’s men will have done nothing to harm his already burdening reputation, whilst the versatile attacker has also broke into the Netherlands senior squad. With United’s links to Sporting Sir Alex Ferguson will be keeping a close eye on Van Wolfswinkel, but others will be sure to rival the Red Devils for the star-in-the-making’s signature.

Published – Bleacher Report

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