Tottenham Hotspur led the way on a positive night for English clubs in the Europa League playoffs on Thursday, crushing Scottish rivals Hearts 5-0 to all but book their place in the group phase.
FA Cup finalists Stoke City won 1-0 at Swiss league leaders FC Thun and Fulham overwhelmed Ukrainians Dnipropetrovsk 3-0, but League Cup winners Birmingham City had to settle for a 0-0 draw at Portugal’s Nacional.
If it was largely plain sailing for the English representatives in the competition, it was anything but for some of the tournament’s biggest names.
Champions League semi-finalists in May, Schalke 04 fell 2-0 at Finnish minnows HJK Helsinki, while Italian powerhouses AS Roma lost 1-0 at Slovan Bratislava and Sevilla, UEFA Cup winners in 2006 and 2007, went down 2-1 at Hannover 96.
There were also disappointing results for the two other Scottish sides.
A stoppage-time back-heel by Etien Velikonja saw Scottish champions Rangers lose 2-1 at Maribor of Slovenia, while Celtic were held to a 0-0 draw in the home leg of their playoff matchup with FC Sion.
The second legs take place on Thursday.
For all the pre-match talk of a “Battle of Britain” at Tynecastle, Spurs raced into a 3-0 halftime lead against Hearts through goals from Rafael van der Vaart, Jermain Defoe and 21-year-old midfielder Jake Livermore.
The hosts improved in the second period, but Gareth Bale added to Spurs’ lead, before Aaron Lennon set the seal on a one-sided victory by sweeping home Defoe’s low cross in the 78th minute.
“I just enjoyed watching us play,” Spurs coach Harry Redknapp said. “Niko Kranjcar and Rafael van der Vaart, their link-up play was great. I expected a really tough game up here, the crowd were great before the kickoff and they deserve some success.”
Stoke, competing in Europe for the first time since the 1974-1975 UEFA Cup, secured a 1-0 victory at Thun thanks to an 18th-minute strike from midfielder Danny Pugh.
“The players responded really, really well,” Stoke coach Tony Pulis said. “These European matches throw up different problems and we have to think of different solutions.”
Schalke were dreaming of a Champions League final place four months ago, but Raul and company may have to forgo European competition altogether this season after their shock defeat in the Finnish capital.
HJK boast 40-year-old former Ajax, Barcelona and Liverpool playmaker Jari Litmanen in their ranks, but it was 21-year-old forward Teemu Pukki who did the damage against the Bundesliga heavyweights.
The former Sevilla player opened the scoring in the 18th minute, cutting in from the right flank and unleashing a soaring drive into the far corner with his left foot, before completing his brace in the 54th minute.
Contrary to the fortunes of their city rivals Roma, Lazio can look forward to the second leg of their matchup against Macedonians Rabotnicki with no trepidation after romping to a 6-0 victory in the home leg.
Paris Saint-Germain were also handsome victors, winning 4-0 at Differdange of Luxembourg in a match that saw Argentine playmaker Javier Pastore make his PSG debut following his record 42 million euro (US$60 million) move from Palermo.