England striker Jermaine Defoe helped himself to three clinically struck goals and moved Tottenham Hotspur a step closer to the Europa League knockout stages with a 3-1 win over NK Maribor of Slovenia on Thursday.
With Group J leaders SS Lazio beating Panathanaikos 3-0 in Rome, Spurs are now two points clear of Maribor in the race for the second qualifying spot.
Defoe’s first came after just 22 minutes, knocking home a Gareth Bale cross at the near post, but Spurs appeared to have shot themselves in the foot with a dreadful defensive blunder five minutes before halftime.
Kyle Naughton hit a sloppy back- pass and goalkeeper Hugo Lloris failed to react as Robert Beric slipped in and knocked the ball home.
However, Defoe was on hand again four minutes after the break, with a left-foot effort after an incisive through ball from Thomas Carroll, and cropped up again with 15 minutes to go to slot home Bale’s low cross from the left.
It could have been a good deal worse for Maribor if Emmanuel Adebayor had taken any of the string of chances presented to him.
Lazio swept into the qualifying round with a comfortable win over the Greeks with goals from Libor Kozak, in the 23rd and 40th minutes, and Sergio Floccari after 59.
Holders Atletico Madrid came a cropper in Portugal, beaten 2-0 by Academica de Coimbra, but with three wins already under their belt, are safely through to the knockout stages.
A goal in each half from Wilson Eduardo, the second from the penalty spot, gave Academica a comfortable win, but it was little more than consolation as they bowed out of the competition.
The goalscoring performance of the night came in Naples, where Uruguay’s Edinson Cavani hit all four of SSC Napoli’s goals against Ukrainian outfit Dnipro Dnipropetrovsk to bring them back from the brink, after they found themselves 2-1 down after 52 minutes in their Group F tie.
It was revenge for the surprise 3-1 defeat in Ukraine two weeks ago and the Italians’ cause was further helped by PSV Eindhoven slipping up in Sweden, going down 1-0 to AIK, who had held them in the Netherlands two weeks ago.
There is still everything to play for in Group A, where Anzhi Makhachkala moved to the top, leapfrogging Liverpool with a 1-0 win, thanks to a lone Lacina Traore goal in freezing Moscow.
Having beaten Anzhi 1-0 at Anfield two weeks ago, Liverpool surrendered a two-point lead over their Russian rivals and are now a point adrift after four games.
Liverpool’s under-fire manager Brendan Rodgers said afterwards: “I feel for the players, I thought they were outstanding. The first half we were tactically terrific for 44 minutes and 50 seconds, but then switched off and made a mistake right at the end.”
Speaking on ITV4, he added: “It was a terrific team performance against players of top quality on a difficult pitch, but at this level you get punished when you make mistakes.”
His opposite number, Guus Hiddink, said: “We didn’t finish it off in the second half, we had two big opportunities, but it was an interesting game on a very bad pitch. They tested us so we have to be happy with this result.”
However, Udinese failed to cash in when they went down 3-2 at home to Switzerland’s BSC Young Boys, setting up a nail-biting final round of matches.
In Group C, England’s bad boy Joey Barton seemed to have set Olympique de Marseille on their way to victory over Borussia Moenchengladbach, canceling out Mike Hanke’s 20th-minute opener with a classic goal direct from a corner, before Andre Ayew made it 2-1 after 67 minutes.