Britain Soccer Europa League

Swansea and Napoli show Europa League nights are about to get good

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For much of the year the Europa League is scoffed at.

The bigger teams wouldn’t be seen dead competing in it, the medium sized teams use it as a reserve league for their squad players and there are a few smaller clubs who take it seriously.

Let’s face it, the Europa League lives a tough life as the UEFA Champions League towers over it, as the competition generally gets a pretty bad rep as the smaller brother.

And in case you didn’t know, the eight teams who finish third in their respective groups during the Champions League group stage are bumped down to the Europa League for the Round of 32 action. That means Europe’s second-tier continental tournament suddenly becomes awash with talented teams that didn’t quite make the cut in the UCL.

(MORE: Europa League holds draw for knockout round and Round of 16)

Such teams this season include reigning Italian champions Juventus, Dutch powerhouse Ajax and the extremely unlucky Napoli who somehow failed to qualify for the UCL knockout rounds, after becoming the only team in history to gain 12 points and not make the next stage of Europe’s top club competition.

Instead Napoli had to settle for a spot in the Europa League, and they faced a fired-up Swansea team at the Liberty Stadium on Thursday in an entertaining 0-0 draw. Yes, there were no goals. But the tempo of the game was impressive as both teams went for broke in an enthralling game.

In the first half the home side came flying out of the traps, as Swansea’s Nathan Dyer curled an effort towards the top corner but was denied, Wilfried Bony smashed over and had a shot well saved by Napoli ‘keeper Rafael Cabral, while just before the break Ashely Williams had acres of space in the box but headed over at the back post. At the other end Marek Hamsik smashed in a shot that Michel Vorm saved superbly, as the end-to-end action continued for the entire opening half. After the break Swansea’s tide of chances continued as Williams had another effort at the back post and then Wayne Routledge saw his shot saved superbly by former Liverpool ‘keeper Pepe Reina, who came on at half time following an injury to Cabral. Swansea kept pushing, but the fact that this game ended scoreless was neither here nor there.

(MORE: Much-changed Tottenham fall to Dnipro, as squad players struggle)

The cut and thrust of knockout soccer on the European stage was exciting and as goals flew in across the rest of Europe, the Europa League came to life again. For most of the group stage games, empty stadiums saw placid games play out as many teams used this competition as an afterthought. But now that some of the biggest clubs in Europe find themselves ensconced in a second-tier tournament, they don’t want to be embarrassed by so-called smaller teams, and smaller teams want to embarrass them.

If this Swansea vs. Napoli tie is anything to go by, Thursday’s between now and May mean we are in for a real soccer treat.

Southampton 4-2 Manchester City: Southampton carves up City behind Mane hat-trick, Tadic service

during the Barclays Premier League match between Southampton and Manchester City at St Mary's Stadium on May 1, 2016 in Southampton, England.
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Manchester City clearly had one eye on the Champions League semifinals. It came at the expense of their chances to remain in the competition next year.

The visitors at St. Mary’s had the opportunity to lock up Champions League play next season with all three points, but instead Manuel Pellegrini rested a number of starters including Sergio Aguero and Kevin De Bruyne, and Southampton ripped them apart in a 4-1 win. Saido Mane grabbed a hat-trick and Dusan Tadic had a trio of assists as their attack swarmed a mistake-prone and clearly distracted Manchester City.

Both sides had spells in the opening 20 minutes, but Southampton appeared more dangerous. Shane Long made multiple appearances in front of the Manchester City goal, picking the pocket of Pablo Zabaleta to earn a corner on 15 minutes and shooting just wide of the near post in the 19th minute.

Frasier Forster was required to keep the game scoreless in the 20th minute as Kelechi Iheanacho stole the ball from Virgil van Djik on the touchline and found Raheem Sterling in space inside the box, but his shot was saved expertly by Forster.

[ MORE: Watch full PL match replays ]

It would be the in-form Long to take the lead in the 25th minute on a beautiful bit of play. A fantastic ball over the top of the City defense fell to a streaking Dusan Tadic, and his flick over the top met a sliding Shane Long, who beat Nicolas Otamendi for the opener.

They’d get a second just four minutes later on yet another sweet-looking goal, with Tadic getting yet another assist with a perfectly weighted ball for Saido Mane, who smacked it by Joe Hart from a tight angle.

[ MORE: Latest Premier League standings ]

Southampton continued to press and hold much of the meaningful possession, but Manchester City refused to capitulate, scoring a lifeline before halftime. With the ball in the Southampton penalty area, Cuco Martino saw the ball skip off his thigh and pop into the air, where Iheanacho latched onto it and headed it into the net.

[ MORE: Full lineups, stats, box score ]

It was a tough way for the hosts to go into halftime, as they had dominated much of the first half, but no matter, as they made amends. Following the break, Southampton restored their two-goal lead off a corner in the 57th minute as Van Djik’s header was tipped by Joe Hart off the crossbar. Jose Fonte whiffed at the rebound but Mane was there from point blank range to give Southampton a 3-1 lead.

Mane would complete his hat-trick in the 68th minute. Van Djik won the ball in the Southampton half to start the break, and Tadic picked up his third assist of the match as he slotted Mane through on goal for yet another clinical finish.

Manchester City got another back as Iheanacho bagged his second in the 79th minute with a wonderful curler from outside the box, but it was too little too late for the visitors.

Both teams fought until the final whistle, and it could have cost Jesus Navas his fitness as the Argentinian seemingly picked up a serious limp in the final few minutes.

VIDEO: Claudio Ranieri says he might miss Leicester City winning the Premier League

MANCHESTER, UNITED KINGDOM - MAY 01:  Claudio Ranieri, manager of Leicester City applauds the fans after the Barclays Premier League match between Manchester United and Leicester City at Old Trafford on May 1, 2016 in Manchester, England.  (Photo by Laurence Griffiths/Getty Images)
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Following Leicester City’s gritty draw with Manchester United at Old Trafford, the Foxes missed out on securing the Premier League trophy, but come tomorrow evening, they could still be celebrating.

With the point against United, their magic number is now two, meaning any dropped points by Tottenham wins Leicester City the league title. Tottenham travels to Stamford Bridge tomorrow to take on Chelsea, and should they fail to win, the trophy is Leicester’s.

But manager Claudio Ranieri, the hero in Leicester for guiding their beloved club to the unthinkable, might be the last to find out.

In his post-match comments, Ranieri said he could be on a plane during the Spurs game, therefore unable to find out the result until he lands. The reason? He’s going back to Italy to have lunch with his 96-year-old mother.

“I would like to watch to watch the match,” Ranieri said. “But I think I am on the flight back from Italy, and then it’s difficult for me to watch the match. Maybe when I landed, I will know the result.”

What a family man. No wonder his team plays like a close-knit unit.

AC Milan fights back for draw against Frosinone, but still falls out of European place

MILAN, ITALY - MAY 01:  Mario Balotelli of AC Milan reacts during the Serie A match between AC Milan and Frosinone Calcio at Stadio Giuseppe Meazza on May 1, 2016 in Milan, Italy.  (Photo by Marco Luzzani/Getty Images)
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AC Milan fought back from down 3-1 to earn a point at home against relegation candidate Frosinone, but by dropping points they’ve also dropped out of a European position.

Frosinone got goals from Oliver Kragl and Luca Paganini in the first half, and Federico Dionisi struck in the 54th minute to go 3-1 up. But Luca Antonelli scored in the 74th minute – just a minute after coming on for AC Milan – and Jeremy Menez finished a penalty in added time to pull level.

The draw, coupled with a 1-0 Sassuolo win against Verona, dropped the Rossoneri to 7th in the Serie A table, out of the Europa League places. They sit on 54 points, with Sassuolo on 55.

Contributing heavily to the final result was Frosinone goalkeeper Francesco Bardi, who saved a Mario Balotelli penalty and produced a host of acrobatic first-half saves to keep the Milan attack at bay.

AC Milan hardly has time to lick its wounds, with just three matches remaining, two against Juventus and Roma to close out the year. Meanwhile, the point for Frosinone is important but likely not enough as they fall four points back of Palermo who Sampdoria.

Watch Live: Southampton vs. Manchester City (Lineups & Live Stream)

MANCHESTER, ENGLAND - NOVEMBER 28:  Raheem Sterling of Manchester City and Victor Wanyama of Southampton compete for the ball during the Barclays Premier League match between Manchester City and Southampton at the Etihad Stadium on November 28, 2015 in Manchester, England.  (Photo by Alex Livesey/Getty Images)
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Manchester City has shuffled the deck, with five changes from last time out as Manuel Pellegrini and company travel to St. Mary’s to take on Southampton, live at 11:30 a.m. ET on NBCSN or live online at NBC Sports Live Extra.

Sergio Aguero is on the bench, while Kevin De Bruyne is not selected at all for City as Wilfried Bony is the man up top along with Kelechi Iheanacho in support. Jesus Navas is also among the substitutes, with Samir Nasri and Raheem Sterling among the starters.

WATCH LIVE: Southampton vs. Manchester City live online at NBC Sports Live Extra

David Silva is not included in the squad having suffered a hamstring injury, and while Yaya Toure has returned to fitness, he is not among those named.

For Southampton, three changes from their 4-2 win over Aston Villa dot the map, with Cuco Martina, Jordy Clasie, and Saido Mane all coming into the side. Charlie Austin is on the bench having returned from a hamstring problem, but Shane Long gets the nod to start, while Graziano Pelle does not appear.

A win for Manchester City would put them firmly in fourth at 67 points, seven clear of Manchester United with two more games to play.

LINEUPS

Southampton: Forster; Martina, Fonte, Van Dijk, Bertrand; Clasie, Wanyama, S.Davis, Tadic, Manè; Long.
Subs: Stekelenberg, Yoshida, Soares, Romeu, Ward-Prowse, Rodriguez, Austin.

Manchester City: Hart, Zabaleta, Otamendi, Mangala, Kolarov, Delph, Fernandinho, Nasri, Sterling, Iheanacho, Bony
Subs: 
Caballero, Sagna, Clichy, Demichelis, Fernando, Navas, Aguero