Football Features

A landmark Liverpool goal: Nine things you might have missed as the Europa League last 16 gets underway

By Harry Edwards

Published: 22:09, 7 March 2024

The Europa League last 16 got underway this week, with the remaining teams eyeing a spot in the quarter-finals.

This round saw the return of the group winners, who enjoyed a bye past the the knockout round play-offs. So we had West Ham, Brighton, Rangers, Atalanta, Liverpool, Villarreal, Slavia Prague and Bayer Leverkusen all back in the competition, looking to continue their journeys to the final.

But Thursdays are such busy days for football, so it’s easy to miss the Europa League action. As always, that’s where we come in. We’ve rounded up the best stats and stories from the first legs of the 2023/24 Europa League last 16.

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Five-star Reds

Liverpool were comfortable winners on their return to Europa League action. The Group E winners were drawn against Group C runners-up Sparta Prague in the last 16, traveling to the Czech Republic for the first leg.

While Liverpool will have been expected to win, pre-match odds suggested that some thought it would be a tough ride. But Liverpool made it clear from early that they weren’t in Prague to mess around. Scoring in the sixth minute, Liverpool were 3-0 up by half-time and eventually won 5-1. Alexis Mac Allister, Darwin Nunez (two), Luis Diaz and Dominic Szoboszlai were the scorers, with Conor Bradley putting into his own net.

It was just the second time Liverpool have scored five goals in a Europa League away game, previously doing so in a 5-3 victory against Young Boys in September 2012.

Liverpool reach 1,000 under Klopp

Darwin Nunez’s second goal not only added a comfort blanket but brought up a special milestone for Liverpool.

It was the Reds’ 1,000th goal scored across all competitions during the stewardship of Jurgen Klopp. In his 476th game in charge, that’s an average of 2.11 goals per match for Liverpool under Klopp, when adding in the three they scored after.

Bayer Never-losen

It really looked like it was going to happen. Bayer Leverkusen trailed Qarabag 2-0 at half-time thanks to goals from Yassine Benzia and Juninho, and the Azerbaijani side held that lead into injury time, despite Florian Wirtz pulling a goal back.

At that moment, fans must have been anticipating the worst. Thirty-four games unbeaten, a Bundesliga record, would end there. But there is something about this Bayer Leverkusen team. Xabi Alonso is overseeing a special side. Up stepped Patrik Schick at the key moment, coming off the bench with 10 minutes left to play, scoring just his seventh goal of the season to equalise.

Record saved, and Bayer Leverkusen will fancy their chances with the tie still level as they return to Germany next week.

Seagulls’ wings clipped in Rome

Brighton had a tough start to life in the Europa League but then they found their footing, and looked at home. Their run sealed top spot in their group and direct passage to the last 16.

But their return to the Europa League was also a return to reality. Roma were on another level at the Stadio Olimpico, all-but securing their spot in the quarter-finals with a 4-0 win thanks to two goals in each half.

For Brighton, that’s now three consecutive defeats across all competitions, also losing to Fulham and Wolves – conceding eight and scoring none. It’s the first time they’ve lost three in a row under Roberto De Zerbi, while also being the first time the Italian has lost three consecutive matches since January 2020 when he was in charge of Sassuolo.

De Rossi’s diamond

It took Roma just 12 minutes to breach Brighton’s net, exploiting a defence that had been solid in the Europa League. The goal ended a run of 441 minutes for Brighton without conceding in the competition.

It was also Dybala’s eighth across all competitions since Daniele De Rossi took charge of Roma, the most any Serie A player has managed during that time.

Pierre-Emerick Aubameyang’s competition

If there were any doubts before, now you know. The Europa League belongs to Pierre-Emerick Aubameyang.

The Gabonese striker when into the last 16 level alongside Henrik Larsson as the joint-top goalscorer in Europa League and UEFA Cup history. That’s right, even when you consider the secondary competition’s previous guise.

But now he stands outright. And not just by one goal. Aubameyang scored twice as Marseille thumped 2020/21 Europa League winners Marseille 4-0 in their first leg, taking his total tally in the competition to 33.

Aubameyang now scored nine goals in the Europa League this season, the most of any player in Europe’s three continental competitions.

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Hammers’ defence finally breached in controversial defeat

The last 16 brought a rematch of Group A, with West Ham taking on Freiburg. The defending Europa Conference League champions won both of those matches, beating Freiburg 2-1 in Germany and 2-0 in London.

But Freiburg got their revenge. For a while it looked like the two sides would be playing out a goalless draw, but substitute Michael Gregoritsch opened the scoring just 10 minutes after coming on. It was the first goal West Ham had conceded in the Europa League in 395 minutes, since Rodinei’s goal for Olympiacos in October.

The drama wasn’t done there, however. There was still time for West Ham to have an extremely late penalty appeal for handball. The referee was sent to the monitor but opted not to give the penalty, securing the win for Freiburg.

Rangers’ quick starters

There’s something about playing Rangers that make Benfica suffer early. Rangers took the lead after six minutes and 32 seconds through Tom Lawrence, the second-earliest goal Benfica have conceded in the Europa League. The earliest? When Scott Arfield netted for Rangers vs Benfica after six minutes and 24 seconds in November 2020.

It also means that five of Rangers’ last eight goals in the Europa League have been scored inside the opening 20 minutes. However, they were twice pegged back by Benfica and had to settle with a draw in Lisbon.

An overlooked draw

Thursday is Europa League football day. But the last 16 actually started on Wednesday this year, with Sporting CP hosting Atalanta. The game was moved as Sporting CP and Benfica cannot play at home on the same day, and as Portuguese champions, Benfica get the priority.

So while the Champions League was on, Sporting CP and Atalanta — who met in the group stage this season — played out a 1-1 draw. It extended Atalanta’s unbeaten record against Sporting CP, having drawn one and won one of the group stage games.