And then there were eight. After nine months and a mind-boggling 408 fixtures that has spanned the far-reaches of the continent this season’s Europa League has finally reached the quarter-final stage.
The stand-out tie is of course Liverpool v Borussia Dortmund, made especially intriguing by the prospect of Jurgen Klopp taking on his old club, while elsewhere we have an all-Spanish clash as Seville face off with Athletico Bilbao. Sparta Prague are rewarded for their magnificent slaying of Lazio in the previous round with a challenging 180 minutes against Villarreal and completing the line-up Portuguese side Braga must be hoping for a first leg lead to take to Shakhtar Donetsk.
Each game contains enticing sub-plots as the stakes rise and a colourful final in Basel looms ever nearer. For watching neutrals there will be thrills and spills and better yet it won’t cost us a penny. Which reminds us of this great free spins offer.
There is also a plethora of fantastic talent on display with these five in particular hopeful of continuing their impressive 2015/16.
Phillipe Coutinho (Liverpool)
Liverpool’s Brazilian wizard is hitting peak form as illustrated by two virtuoso goals in recent weeks that showed the breadth of his genius.
His equaliser at Old Trafford in the preceding round was a perfect example of his quick thinking and improvisation, a near-post dink that confounded one of the best keepers in the world. The 23 year old followed that up with a long-range effort at Southampton that was all about precision and ambition.
The Reds face an intimidating task against Dortmund. They will need Coutinho to continue his hot streak.
Marco Reus (Borussia Dortmund)
With his silky movement and deceptive pace ‘Rolls’ has been an unstoppable foil to Aubameyang’s prolific goal-scoring as Dortmund look to snatch an unlikely Bundesliga from Bayern’s clutches.
Equally as instrumental anywhere across the front Reus’ set-pieces alone are enough to strike fear in opponents while his predilection for moving inside is guaranteed to give Moreno and co problems over both legs.
Taison (Shakhtar Donetsk)
Having lost the flamboyant skills of Douglas Costa and Teixeira in the past year alone (though ‘lost’ seems the wrong word considering the Ukrainian club recouped £75m for the pair) the onus for creating chances now falls to their mercurial Brazilian.
As with all wingers he has a tendency to drift out of games but when in the mood there are few better at giving right-backs a 90 minute migraine.
Ladislav Krejci (Sparta Prague)
There is a reason Sparta’s tricky left winger (pictured above) is repeatedly linked with Newcastle United. Blessed with the rare old-fashioned trait of patently enjoying setting up goals over finishing them Krejci hugs the touchline in shorts that appear far too big for him and concentrates on the simple things that some wingers seem to think are beneath them: He offers width, passes early to players in better positions, and provides an endless production line of quality balls into dangerous areas.
Sparta frontman David Lafata has benefited more than most this term and it’s a double-act Villarreal must be wary of if they are to progress further.
Aritz Aduriz (Athletico Bilbao)
Like fine wines and that leftover pizza from last night Aduriz is living proof that footballers too can improve greatly over time.
Winning his first international call-up for Spain at the ripe age of 29 the Bilbao hitman went on to blast goals galore into his thirties and is presently on 31 for this season alone. He began 2015/16 with a hat-trick against Barcelona and has not stopped scoring since.