Fernando Llorente of Athletic Bilbao looks on during the la Liga match between FC Barcelona and Athletic Club de Bilbao at Camp Nou. (Photo by Jasper Juinen/Getty Images)
Three teams from Spain's top flight and Sporting Lisbon clash in the semifinals of the UEFA Europa League on Thursday.
While English and Italian sides have failed to take the UEFA Europa League seriously, La Liga is using it as a friendly little vehicle to move to the top of the UEFA Coefficient rankings. Also, the winner of the competition gets a trophy at the end. Who doesn't like trophies? Only weird people don't like trophies.
The Portuguese Liga and their teams have accomplished something similar. With the exception of this season's gate-crashers Maritimo, it's basically a four-team league, and it has been a three-team league in the not so recent past before Braga built themselves up. Last year, they had three teams in the Europa League semifinals. This year, La Liga has done the same.
Sporting Lisbon is the remaining representative from parts outside Spain, and based on their impressive defeats of Manchester City and Metalist Kharkiv, they're good enough to crash La Liga's party. They have been handed arguably the toughest draw, starting at home against Athletic Bilbao. Marcelo Bielsa's men have already knocked Manchester United and Schalke 04 out of the competition, so Sporting is arguably the weakest team they've faced in the knockout stages thus far.
The other semifinal is the all La Liga affair. Atletico Madrid start the tie at home, hosting Valencia. All three of the remaining Spanish teams in the competition are battling each other domestically for next season's European places, so it will be interesting to see if any of the three teams opt to rest any key players and sacrifice this tournament in order to get a leg up on their competition in La Liga. In all three of these teams' cases, their efforts in the Europa League have correlated with dips in domestic form.
Both games kick off at 3:05 p.m. ET, 8:05 p.m. in the UK and 9:05 p.m. central European time.