With Arsenal and Manchester United’s exit from the Round of 16 in the UEFA Champions League, coupled with Chelsea and Manchester City’s failure to progress past the group stages of the tournament, the British media were left to ponder about the Premier League clubs apparent failure in European competition during season 2012/13.
However, football can turn headlines around within a few short hours and, although with a little less fanfare, it was swiftly recorded that the current European champions, Chelsea, together with Newcastle United and Tottenham Hotspur had reached the last eight of the UEFA Europa League.
The draw for the quarter-finals, held in Nyon on 15 March, kept the English sides apart, meaning that Fenerbahce’s match with Lazio is the only tie not involving a Premier League club. It pitted Chelsea with Rubin Kazan, Spurs with Basel and Newcastle with Benfica. The four match-ups are ‘firsts’ for the respective clubs, as these teams have never met before in European competition.
Chelsea’s match against Rubin is the start of five matches in 13 days for Rafael Benitez’s side, but they go into the game buoyed by a 1-0 win over Manchester United in their FA Cup quarter-final clash. "My priority is the top four and trying to win the next game, in the Europa League," said Benitez. "We're in the semi-finals of the FA Cup, quarter-finals of the Europa League. It's a great season at the moment. It could be even better."
However, the Russian outfit have already eliminated holders Atletico Madrid and have not lost in five European away games. The Londoners, however, have extra motivation, success in the UEFA would make them the first British side to complete a clean sweep of the three major UEFA club honours (European Champion Clubs' Cup, UEFA Cup Winners' Cup and UEFA Cup/UEFA Europa League).
Tottenham Hotspur’s reward for knocking out Inter Milan in the last round is a meeting with Basel, the Swiss champions for the last three seasons. The Swiss side have lost only two league matches since Murat Yakin, a former Switzerland defender, took over as coach at the end of October and are unbeaten domestically this year.
They last reached the quarter-finals of a European competition in 2005/06, when English side Middlesbrough knocked them out of the then UEFA Cup, and they may take some optimism from the words of Andre Villas-Boas, the Spurs manager who admitted in his pre-match press conference that he is prioritising the Premier League over European glory.
“We want to focus on trying to win the Europa League but we understand that the fans' and the club's expectations are for us to try and reach Champions League qualification this year," he said. “What sets the success of a football team is their league position at the end of every season but we want to do extremely well in the competition.”
Newcastle United are the only member of the English trio yet to win a top UEFA tournament – and they seemingly have the toughest task, with former European champions Benfica lying in wait in Lisbon on 4 April. The Magpies, though, have earned a reputation for resilience under manager Alan Pardew, having kept clean sheets in all four European games since Christmas.
For Newcastle, the Europa League is a distraction from their domestic battle to avoid relegation, with the club just three points above the drop zone following a crushing 4-0 defeat to Manchester City on Saturday. Pardew, however, has promised fans that his side will put in an improved display in Lisbon.
"It's one of the great European adventures, trust me," he said. "Their stadium is going to be rocking on Thursday night - and after our result they will be looking forward to us coming. But we will certainly be better than we were on Saturday."
In each of the previous two campaigns in which a country has had three sides in the quarter-finals, one went on to lift the trophy – FC Porto in 2010/11 and Atletico Madrid last May. Indeed, both beat domestic rivals in the final. The five non-English teams in this season's competition will have something to say about that, though.