Football Features

Pierre-Emerick Aubameyang makes history plus other stats and stories you might have missed from the Europa League

By Harry Edwards

Published: 22:50, 22 February 2024

The Europa League knockout round playoffs came to a close on Thursday and there was a lot of action.

As always, the Europa League has to deal with Champions League dropouts, and for the third season running their was a split start to the knockout stages. With the eight Europa League group winners going straight to the last 16, the runners-up were drawn against the Champions League dropouts to make up the other eight spots.

Of course, there were no British teams in action during this round, with West Ham, Brighton, Liverpool and Rangers all winning their respective groups. But that doesn’t mean there weren’t big names involved.

So, what went down in the second legs? What were the big stories and were there any upsets? We’ve got you covered below.

Benjamin Bourigeaud gives AC Milan a scare

Meet the Kylian Mbappe of the Europa League (kind of). AC Milan went into the second leg of their tie against Rennes 3-0 up and looking in total control, having dropped down from the Champions League. But in the end they were made to sweat for their spot in the last 16.

Benjamin Bourigeaud was the man causing Milan the problems, twice putting Rennes ahead before being pegged back, and then completing his hat-trick. Two of those goals came from the penalty spot as Milan tried their best to knock themselves out, but Bourigeaud’s hat-trick would ultimately be in vain. Still, it was the first Europa League knockout stage hat-trick since this time last year, when Angel Di Maria bagged one against Nantes.

Luka Jovic and Rafael Leao were on the scoresheet for Milan, with their goals proving vital.

Aubama-who, Aubama-what?

The Champions League has Cristiano Ronaldo. The Europa League has Pierre-Emerick Aubameyang.

The Gabonese striker has played in the Europa League for five different clubs, featuring in the competition while at Arsenal, Borussia Dortmund, Lille, Barcelona and Marseille. He’s scored in the competition for four of those clubs too, only failing in his seven matches while at Lille.

This season, Aubameyang has been flying in the Europa League, scoring five goals in the group stage with all of them coming against Ajax. He then netted in the first leg of their knockout round playoff tie against Shakhtar Donetsk to secure a 2-2 draw.

On Thursday night, Auybameyang made it seven in seven and this one was a historic strike. The Gabonese striker has now scored 31 goals in the Europa League, with no player netting more in Europe’s secondary club competition. He’s level alongside Henrik Larsson who scored his 31 when it was still known as the UEFA Cup. But that does mean the Europa League record is his, and his alone.

Toulouse their own worst enemies in exit

Toulouse had a tough enough task of beating Champions League dropouts Benfica, and trailed 2-1 going into their second leg on Thursday. The French side had more than enough changes to knock out the Portuguese champions, but in the end they could only have themselves to blame.

In total, Toulouse — who beat Liverpool in the group stage — had 16 shots against Benfica, amassing a total xG of 2.08. But they hit the target just six times, missing all six of their Big Chances. They had 30 touches in the opposition box, 63 final third entries and eight shots from inside the box. But they couldn’t get the all important goal, bowing out after a 0-0 draw on the night.

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Freiburg seal dramatic comeback

Anyone who watched last week’s first legs will probably have steered clear of this game, after Lens and Freiburg played out a goalless draw. But that just meant it was all to play for in the second leg. And boy did these two sides put on a show.

At half time, Lens looked set to be on their way to the Europa League last 16, having dropped down from the Champions League. They were 2-0 up in Germany thanks to goals from David Pereira da Costa and Elye Wahi. But Freiburg weren’t going out without a fight.

Two goals from Roland Sallai, including one in the second minute of second-half injury time secured Freiburg’s comeback, to take the game to extra time. With the home crowd cheering them on, substitute Michael Gregoritsch scored the winner in the first half of extra-time, and Freiburg saw the game out.

It’s the first time Freiburg have won a Europa league match after trailing by two or more goals since the start of 2014, and the first time Lens lost a game in which they had led by two in the competition since the start of 2008.

Viktor Gyokeres second to none in Europe

One year ago, Viktor Gyokeres was training in preparation for the visit of Sunderland in the Championship, and he would both score and assist in Coventry City’s 2-1 home win. This year, he was scoring his 29th goal of the season for Sporting CP, adding to 10 assists.

Gyokeres has been wonderful since making the move to Portugal in the summer and is already being linked with a big-money move away. As mentioned, in 33 games across all competitions, Gyokeres has been directly involved in 39 goals. Across Europe’s top seven divisions, no player has been directly involved in more goals than Gyokeres, with Kylian Mbappe also on 39.

On Thursday night, the goal came in the first half against Young Boys, to aid Sporting CP in their 4-2 aggregate victory. And he had the chance to make it to 40 too, but he missed from the penalty spot just before the hour mark. Not that he’ll mind too much, as the job was done.

Two big names fall

With Roma taking on Feyenoord, there was going to be at least one big name falling. Roma won that matchup on penalties, after the two sides couldn’t be separated across 210 minutes. Mile Svilar was the hero in the shootout, saving from David Hancko and Alireza Jahanbakhsh, with the latter coming off the bench for the sole purpose of taking a penalty.

Galatasaray were the other big name to be knocked out, having come from the Champions League. After finishing third in their group, Galatasaray were drawn against Sparta Prague and will have fancied their chances of reaching the last 16. They came into the second leg with a 3-2 lead on aggregate, which was secured in dramatic fashion in Istanbul thanks to Mauro Icardi’s injury-time strike.

But Sparta Prague believed in their own abilities, taking the lead after just eight minutes to level the tie on aggregate. Even when Galatasaray retook the lead, Sparta Prague continued to attack and push, and they finally got their breakthrough. It did come via a red card for Kaan Ayhan reducing Galatasaray to 10 men, with Sparta Prague equalising the tie four minutes later. Then, with 10 minutes left to go, they capitalised on some sloppy play from Galatasaray in their own half, with Lukas Haraslin racing through to secure the win. Jan Kuchta wrapped it up on the counter in injury time.

It’s the first time they have reached the last 16 of the Europa League since 2015/16, when they went on a run to the quarter-finals.