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Europa League: 3 biggest lessons from last-16 first legs

Friday 9th March 2018

Thursday nights used to be utterly boring. Fortnightly Europa League made no much difference. Well, not anymore. Big guns Arsenal, AC Milan, and Atletico Madrid, have glamorised the Champions League's red-headed stepchild. All turned up in style in the last-16 first-leg clashes, leaving us with plenty to discuss.

The Gunners unbelievable 2-0 triumph at San Siro was indeed the round's standout result. Eyes rolled, tongues wagged, as Arsene Wenger ended a miserable four-game losing streak against a Milan side unbeaten in 13. Equally as commanding was Atletico Madrid. The three-star Rojiblancos eased pass Lokomotiv Moscow almost without kicking a ball. 

On the flip side, however, Borussia Dortmund and CSKA Moscow joined the Rossoneri in licking their wounds. The damage RB Salzburg, Lyon and Arsenal respectively inflicted may not heal in a fortnight.

There were lessons for all ahead of the return fixtures. Here are the three most glaring.

False progress for Milan under Gattuso

Gennaro Gattuso must have been somewhere near Lombardy Mayor in status before Arsenal's visit. He showed up just in time to steady Milan's elegant sinking ship. After a troubled start, the Rossoneri appeared to be making giant strides. They hadn't tasted defeat since December. With Vincenzo Montella as captain, Milan was aimlessly drifting towards the deep.

Arrogance, complacency and over-confidence crept in. 

“I’m sorry for Arsenal." 

So said club supremo Massimiliano Mirabelli ahead of Gunners' visit. In the end, it was clear who needed sympathy. Wenger's team was the biggest challenge to date in the Gattuso era. His side crumbled shamefully.

Atletico favourites

Let's pause a bit. Arsenal showed courage, yes. They were determined and resolute, of course. But even the most-optimistic Gooner isn't carried away. Not when Wenger's men typically take a couple of games off to recoup. Certainly not with Atletico Madrid still in contention.

With the La Liga race all but over, the Europa League is the Rojiblancos' only hope of silverware. Diego Simeone isn't taking the competition casually. After pouncing six times over both rounds of 32  ties with FC Copenhagen, they delivered another frightful display against Lokomotiv. Three goals scored, none conceded. Almost a walkover. With such terrifying form, there may be no stopping Simeone's quest.

French army with a point to prove

It's been over two decades since any Ligue 1 representative returned with a European cup of any sort. Lyon made the semifinal last season, heralding a renaissance. Paris Saint-Germain's ouster from the Champions League significantly dampened the revival's spirit, but the two remaining French clubs in European competition haven't been dismayed. Both romped over opponents in their Round of 16 first legs.

Lyon and Marseille's exploits thus far should give Les Blues nation something to cheer. On Thursday both scooped impressive wins over CSKA and Athletic Bilbao respectively. A solitary strike from Marcelo made the difference for OL in Russia. Their Choc des Olympiques foes, meanwhile, recorded an emphatic 3-1 win at home. A Lucas Ocampus double either side of Dimitri Payet's solo made Aritz Aduriz's strike almost inconsequential.

Toby Prince

If the sport has 11-men on each side, a ball and lasts for 90 minutes then I'll write about it. Simply put, I'm an unrepentant soccer freak that other freaks will, however, call a geek. I do find time for music when not watching the beautiful game, though and have been known to produce the odd track. 

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