Football Features

Lukaku closes on Shearer streak: 10 things you may have missed from the Europa League’s return

By Harry Edwards

Published: 22:16, 20 February 2020

The Europa League returned on Thursday night with an exciting round of last-32 action.

There were 16 games in total, spread across the two time slots, with five British teams involved plus a host of big names including Inter Milan and Ajax, who dropped down from the Champions League.

With so much action, there’s no doubt some things may have flown under the radar, but we’ve got you covered.

1. Eriksen gets off the mark at Inter

Inter Milan will be pained that they are in the Europa League, having started the season in the Champions League. But now they are in it, Antonio Conte’s men have their eyes on the prize.

Despite some rotation, Inter played a strong enough line-up to see off a tough Ludogorets test and took the lead through January signing Christian Eriksen. The Dane’s first goal for Inter came with his ninth shot in total and he will be hoping it is the first of many.

2. Lukaku takes a step closer to matching Shearer

Romelu Lukaku started Inter’s 2-0 win over Ludogorets on the bench, with Conte resting him for the Serie A title push. But he came on in the second half and had a big impact, first setting up Eriksen’s opener before getting on the scoresheet himself.

Capping the win in injury time, Lukaku scored for the sixth consecutive Europa League game, a run that includes five matches with Everton in the 2014/15 campaign — as he only played Champions League football for Manchester United.

It’s the best goalscoring run in Europe’s secondary continental club competition since Alan Shearer scored in eight consecutive Uefa Cup matches 15 years ago.

3. Ajax humbled in Madrid

Ajax fans may have been watching angrily as Valencia were thumped 4-1 by Atalanta in the last-16 of the Champions League on Wednesday night, with the Spanish club qualifying from Group G at their expense — finishing top ahead of Chelsea.

But any arguments that the Dutch side would have fared any better will have to be put aside after Ajax were beaten 2-0 by Getafe in Madrid. Deyverson and Kenedy scored the goals to put the La Liga side in firm control ahead of next week’s second leg. If the defeat wasn’t bad enough, it was the first time Ajax had lost a European game by at least two goals since the 2017 Europa League final, where they lost 2-0 to Manchester United.

4. Babel doesn’t take overacting kindly

But if Ajax fans wanted something to smile about from the defeat to Getafe, then Ryan Babel provided it. With Ajax trailing early in the second half, the Dutchman appeared to collide with Allan Nyom of Watford and West Bromwich Albion fame.

Babel was booked for a foul but the winger, on loan from Galatasaray, took exception to Nyom’s overselling of the incident and preceded to copy him by rolling around on the floor and then faking a limp.

5. Rangers extend unbeaten run against Portuguese sides

When Abel Ruiz put Braga 2-0 up against Rangers just before the hour mark, the tie looked over. Rangers had had their chances but were frustrated by either poor finishing or good goalkeeping.

But never count a Steven Gerrard side out in a European tie — even when he’s a manager. The Gers dug deep and found a way to come back, with Ianis Hagi scoring twice either side of Joe Aribo’s strike to complete a thrilling comeback at Ibrox, sending the home fans crazy.

As well as putting Rangers in control of the game, it also extended their unbeaten home record against Portuguese opposition, yet to lose in nine games now — winning seven and drawing twice.

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6. VAR Show in Donetsk

It’s received a lot of negative press in England this year but VAR was making its full Europa League debut in the last-32 — excluding finals. And it was a baptism of fire.

Across the ties, there were various uses but the most game-changing VAR decisions came in Shakhtar Donetsk’s 2-1 win over Benfica in Ukraine.

The hosts thought they had taken the lead midway through the first half when Marlos tapped in following a rebound, but the goal was ruled out for offside. They did eventually take the lead in the second half via Alan Patrick but Benfica looked to have equalised when Adel Taarabt put the ball in the net for a rebound.

Yet again, the goal was ruled out for offside but it was followed by Benfica being awarded a penalty for a foul in the same move, which Pizzi scored. Who says VAR ruins games?!

7. Salzburg fall without stars

Red Bull Salzburg were every neutral’s favourite team in the Champions League group stage but now they are on the verge of exiting the Europa League.

The winter transfer window was a harsh one for Salzburg with Takumi Minamino leaving for Liverpool and Erling Braut Haaland continuing his ridiculous goalscoring season at Borussia Dortmund. Back in European action without the duo, Salzburg were routinely beaten 4-1 by Eintracht Frankfurt.

8. Kamada joins exclusive group

Key to Frankfurt’s 4-1 win was Japanese star Daichi Kamada. The 23-year-old scored his first hat-trick in the victory, in doing so becoming only the second Japanese player to score one in the Europa League — both coming in games involving Salzburg.

The first? Minimano for Salzburg in last season’s group stage, netting three in a 5-2 win over Rosenborg.

9. Sporting fine without Fernandes

There may have been some worries among Sporting CP fans about their Europa League chances after Bruno Fernandes’ departure to Manchester United. The Portuguese midfielder was directly involved in more group stage goals than any other player in the Europa League, scoring five and recording three assists.

But Sporting proved they can be okay without Fernandes, recording a 3-1 win over Istanbul Basaksehir to put themselves in firm control of their last-32 tie and on their way to a spot in the next round.

10. Europa League returns with a bang

What a way for the Europa League to announce its return.

The 16 games on Thursday evening brought 44 goals in total and there was not one single goalless draw, with all but two matches seeing at least two goals. Of the 32 teams in action, just six failed to score, a high standard for the Europa League to try and match for the remainder of the season.