Europa League roundup: Napoli, Sevilla, Dynamo Kiev hold QF leads after Leg 1

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We’ve spent the last two days watching the brilliance that is the Champions League quarterfinals, and while the Europa League’s round of eight perhaps offers slightly less intrigue — OK, it’s a lot less — the soccer being played in Europe’s second-tier club competition is still equally brilliant.

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Wolfsburg 1-4 Napoli

Wolfsburg, perhaps the darlings of this year’s Europa League thanks to Kevin De Bruyne’s standout performances since leaving Chelsea, but goodness did Napoli put a hurting on them at the Volkswagen Arena in Wolfsburg.

The Neopaltians jumped all over Die Wolfe early on and never looked back. Gonazlo Higuain opened the scoring with 15 minutes on the clock, a quick-reflex finish past Diego Benaglio after chesting the ball down with a defender draped all over his back. Marek Hamsik doubled the lead eight minutes later when Higuain’s through ball cut the Wolfsburg defense in half and put the Slovak playmaker in on goal.

[ UCL RECAPS: PSG 1-3 Barca | Porto 3-1 Bayern | Atletico 0-0 Real | Juve 1-0 Monaco ]

Jose Callejon pounced on a poor pass inside Wolfsburg’s defensive third and crossed for Hamsik at the top of the six-yard box, where he netted his second goal of the game with 25 minutes left in the game. It got even worse for Wolfsburg in the 76th minute, when Manolo Gabbiadini headed home from six yards out, making Napoli’s lead 4-0 on four away goals.

Nicklas Bendtner, who apparently “plays” for Wolfsburg now, grabbed a simple consolation goal when he turned home Ivan Perisic’s cross in the 80th minute, but with a three-goal deficit to erase in the away leg, Dieter Hecking’s side need at least four goals (and a clean sheet) to advance.

Sevilla 2-1 Zenit St. Petersburg

Aleksandr Ryazantsev gave the visitors the lead in the 29th minute when he slammed home Sergio Rico’s strong save of his first effort, but Ryazantsev’s powerful shot over the top of Rico was unstoppable from five yards away.

Carlos Bacca scored his 22nd goal of the season (all competitions), equalizing for Sevilla in the 73rd minute with a powerful header from three yards out, and Denis Suarez gave the Spanish side a narrow advantage ahead of the second leg when he hit a stunning volley (below video) from the edge of the penalty area, through traffic and just inside the far post, in the 87th minute.

Dynamo Kyiv 1-1 Fiorentina

Dynamo Kyiv’s Jeremain Lens gave the home side a first-half lead (39th minute) when his right-footed effort from just outside the penalty area took a heavy deflection off the leg of a defender, sending the ball skyward over the head of Fiorentina ‘keeper Neto and quickly back down to find the back of the net.

Dynamo looked destined to carry a one-goal lead into the second leg having not conceded an away goal to Fiorentina, but Khouma Babacar scored with an opportunistic overhead kick (below video) two minutes into second-half stoppage time, grabbing the vital away goal for La Viola and making them the favorites heading into next Thursday’s return leg.

Elsewhere in Europa League

Club Brugge 0-0 Dnipro

Arsenal want season completed ‘to maintain integrity’ of PL

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Arsenal remain in support of finishing the 2019-20 season in order to “to maintain the integrity” of the competition, despite Friday’s unanimous vote that the Premier League cannot resume at the start of May as previously hoped due to the ongoing coronavirus pandemic.

[ MORE: UEFA threatens Belgian league with European expulsion ]

The Gunners, who currently sit ninth in the PL table with 10 games left to play (one more than the majority of clubs around them), were five points back of fifth-place Manchester United for qualification to next season’s UEFA Champions League thanks to Manchester City’s two-year European ban.

In a statement released on Friday, Arsenal reiterated their stance that the current season should be played to completion rather than called to completion at things stand or abandoned altogether.

We are in full support of the objective for all remaining domestic league and cup matches from the 2019-20 season to be played, in order to maintain the integrity of each competition.

We also fully agree with the principle that any return to action will only be with the full backing of government and when medical guidance allows.

The restart date is under constant review as the impact of the COVID-19 pandemic develops and we continue to work together with all stakeholders through this very challenging time

Premier League rivalries: The Merseyside derby

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While the Merseyside derby has been dominated by one side of late, that has not detracted from the spectacle of the most historic matchup in English top flight history.

Uninterrupted in top flight play since 1962/63, the two sides are situated less than a mile apart, with the proximity feeding an already intense matchup.

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Despite the incredibly close geographic proximity, the derby is sometimes known as the “Friendly Derby” as there are often families with split allegiances. Still, the matchup has the most red cards in Premier League history with 21, including 17 of those in the especially heated timeframe between 1997 and 2008.

Unfortunately for Everton, the rivalry has become one-sided over the past decade, with the Toffees failing to win since October of 2010. Liverpool has won 11 of the 21 games, with the other 10 ending in a draw. That has somewhat deescalated the vicious nature of the matchup, especially since Liverpool has gone on to become one of the most formidable sides in Europe over the past few years while Everton continues to challenge for a top-half place in the league.

Still, the 228 all-time matches between the clubs continues to fuel one of the great matchups in the English domestic landscape, and sooner or later this rivalry will regain its venom to bring the bite back to this matchup.

Bayern Munich signs coach Flick as permanent boss

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Bayern Munich has locked down interim head coach Hansi Flick as permanent boss, signing the 55-year-old on through the summer of 2023, the club announced on Friday.

Flick took over on an interim basis for Niko Kovac when the Croatian was let go in early November with the club fourth in the Bundesliga table. He impressed during his time as interim manager, leading the club back to the top of the table thanks in large part to a current 11-match league unbeaten run that features 10 wins and a draw.

That streak includes a 0-0 draw with then-second placed RB Leipzig that kept Bayern atop the table, plus a dominant 5-0 win over then-fifth placed Schalke. Successive 2-1 defeats to Borussia Monchengladbach and Bayer Leverkusen are the only real blemishes on his record in charge so far, coming way back in late November and early December.

“I’m looking forward to taking on the upcoming tasks along with my staff and the team,” Flick said in the official team release. “The talks with Karl-Heinz Rummenigge, Oliver Kahn and Hasan Salihamidžić were very good and in a spirit of good faith. We’ve determined the direction for the upcoming years. I’m sure we can achieve a lot together.”

Flick has also kept the club’s pristine Champions League record alive this season, with wins over Red Star Belgrade, Tottenham, and Chelsea by a combined 12-1 scoreline. The 3-0 first-leg win over Chelsea in the Round of 16 has the club primed to reach the quarterfinal round should the competition eventually resume.

Speaking to Flick’s adaptability, he also kept the club rolling in the recent absence of in-form striker Robert Lewandowski, working 6-0 and 2-0 wins over Hoffenheim and Augsburg without his lead frontman who began a long absence with a broken tibia.

“Bayern are very satisfied with Hansi Flick’s work,” said Bayern’s chief executive Karl-Heinz Rummenigge in the release. “The team has had a very good development under him, plays attractive football which is reflected in results. We are the only club still competing in all three competitions.”

Sporting director Hasan Salihamidzic added, “Hansi and I know in which direction we want to develop the team. We believe that Hansi is also the right head coach for the current time.”

Transfer Rumor Roundup: Montiel to Palace or West Ham, Coutinho to depart Barcelona

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River Plate is one of many clubs that could use this coming transfer window to earn a payday after taking losses in the coronavirus shutdown, and that could come at the benefit of one Premier League club.

West Ham is apparently one of a few teams after Argentine international Gonzalo Montiel who could fetch River Plate somewhere in the vicinity of $24 million. The right-back is a River Plate youth product who established himself as a regular for the club at just 20 years old and has spent the last three seasons earning significant minutes. Now 23, Montiel is a strong passer who can create for teammates with long-range deliveries.

Argentine publication Ole mentions that Spanish side Valencia has shown interest of late, but also states that West Ham made contact in January but was turned down by River Plate and the Hammers could be suitors again once the next window arrives. Montiel was also linked with Crystal Palace by Goal back in late March, while Argentine newspaper El Intransigente linked the player with Southampton. Palace and Saints both make sense as they are both looking to replace big-name departures of late, with Crystal Palace still yet to truly replace Aaron Wan-Bissaka while Southampton has not seen much from those brought in to take over for Cedric Soares.

Barcelona is reportedly ready to lower its asking price on Philippe Coutinho, with a bid of $86 million potentially workable for the Catalan club, according to a report by the Evening Standard.

Coutinho was extremely poor in his season-and-a-half at Barcelona, and while the Brazilian playmaker had upped his game on loan at Bayern Munich before the coronavirus shutdown, the purchase price on his loan deal is a whopping $130 million, which Bayern Munich is not willing to pay.

Barcelona is desperately in need of funds to support its summer business, with Lautaro Martinez and Neymar both heavily linked with the La Liga giants. It’s highly unlikely that both will be possible to acquire given both the team’s business of late and the coronavirus shutdown causing financial strain on clubs all over the world, and a significant sale may even be needed to get one of them over the line. Coutinho provides such a possibility, but with Barcelona not exactly in a position of strength given Coutinho’s lack of recent star power and the club’s need to sell, dropping the asking price is a highly likely eventuality.

The Evening Standard report mentions that Barcelona believes the Premier League is the “most likely possibility” for a Coutinho suitor given the league’s memories of his incredible spell at Liverpool just a few years ago.

Speaking of the Premier League, Manchester United was reportedly close to securing a marquee striker last summer before eventually sticking with Marcus Rashford up front. Speaking to Italian print publication Tuttosport on Wednesday, Romelu Lukaku’s agent Federico Pastorello said that the Belgian big man almost went to Juventus on a swap deal before Manchester United backed out of the transfer negotiations due to Dybala’s high wage demand. Eventually, Lukaku departed for Inter Milan where he settled in quickly and has contributed to a furious title challenge that just lost steam before the coronavirus shutdown.

Pastorello simply responded “It’s true” when asked if Dybala had been a focal point of Manchester United negotiations, but hedged his answer with, “Romelu, however, had always hoped to go to Inter because he was impressed by the affection of the Inter fans.”