Be it Manchester United and Liverpool having a knock-down, drag-out fight at Old Trafford, Borussia Dortmund putting on a clinic against Tottenham Hotspur, Lazio faceplanting at home against Sparta Prague, or any of a number of other matches, Thursday's action in the Europa League round of 16 confirmed one thing: this competition is a whole lot of fun.
Many deride the Europa League for being the "red-headed stepchild" of European competition, taking a back seat to the Champions League and being a far inferior tournament. While it certainly does lack the glitz and glamour of the Champions League, the sometimes-bizarre matchups of teams that are better than you think they are can create some wildly entertaining matches, often bordering on just being silly. There's no reason not to love the Europa League, because you just never know what's going to happen next.
Europa League round of 16 scores
Advancing team in italics, aggregate score in parenthesis
Bayer Leverkusen 0-0 Villarreal (0-2 agg.)
Valencia 2-1 Athletic Bilbao (2-2 agg.)
Lazio 0-3 Sparta Prague (1-4 agg.)
Manchester United 1-1 Liverpool (1-3 agg.)
Anderlecht 0-1 Shakhtar Donetsk (1-4 agg.)
Sevilla 3-0 Basel (3-0 agg.)
Tottenham Hotspur 1-2 Borussia Dortmund (0-4 agg.)
Braga 4-1 Fenerbahce (4-2 agg.)
Liverpool sank Manchester United with ease
Manchester United tried hard, you have to give them credit for that. After a woeful performance at Anfield a week ago, United picked things up in a big way against Liverpool at Old Trafford -- but they still struggled to create good chances to score. It took a penalty for Manchester to get their first goal of the tie, but Liverpool and Philippe Coutinho still had another card to play.
HT: Man United 1, Liverpool 1 (agg. 1-3). This beautiful run and finish from Coutinho puts Reds in driving seat. https://t.co/eYOCWFUrE6— FOX Soccer (@FOXSoccer) March 17, 2016
After that, there was no doubt how the tie would turn out. Liverpool controlled most of the rest of the match without breaking a sweat, stymieing Manchester's efforts to find a breakthrough time after time. The Old Trafford crowd gradually grew quieter and quieter after being raucous early on, realizing that their team weren't going to get the job done against their bitter rivals.
You have to give credit to Jurgen Klopp for how he's turned around the team in the months since he took over. There's been some bumps along the way, but he's got his team playing to their strengths and playing with much more confidence than they'd had under Brendan Rodgers in a year or more before the Northern Irishman got fired. Klopp has his team playing with belief, and that belief gave them a huge advantage over a sinking Manchester United team.
Italy had a bad time
Between Napoli and Fiorentina bombing out of the last round of Europa League action and both Roma and Juventus failing to advance in the Champions League, all of Italy's European hopes rested on Lazio. The Aquile had earned a 1-1 away draw against Sparta Prague in the first leg, so hopes were high that Lazio would finish the job in Rome.
Three first half goals decimated Lazio's hopes, and the hopes of all of Italy along with them. They were the last Serie A team standing in Europe, and with their exit this marks the first time since way back in 2001 when there were no Italian sides in the quarterfinal rounds of any European competitions. It's a stark contrast to last season, when Italian teams dominated the Europa League until the semifinal round, and Juventus gave Barcelona a stern fight in the Champions League final.
This also damages Italy's hopes of regaining a fourth Champions League place -- they'd slowly been pulling closer to England in the European co-efficient table, but with no more teams left and with England still have two teams active in Liverpool and Manchester City, those dreams will have to wait at least another year.
Borussia Dortmund are a scary team
Tottenham Hotspur are in the thick of the Premier League title race, and while they have a few injury concerns to consider right now, they're still an excellent team who would have stood a good chance at advancing against pretty much any team left in the Europa League in this round.
Any team, that is, except Borussia Dortmund.
The Germans blasted Spurs in Dortmund to bring a 3-0 lead into Thursday's match in London, and wasted little time in going up another goal to effectively end the tie. In fact, it took going down 5-0 on aggregate for Tottenham to finally find their first goal against Dortmund.
And it's not even as though Tottenham were playing poorly. They weren't quite at 100% effectiveness during the tie, but they still generally played quite well. Borussia Dortmund were just that much better. They're fast, they're aggressive, they have wonderfully talented midfielders and defenders -- we may have just found our new favorite to win the Europa League this season. Look out, Sevilla.