Sevilla’s love affair with the UEFA Europa League was immediately rekindled as last season’s champions and three-time winners began this year’s group stage with a 2-0 home victory over Feyenoord on Thursday.
On-loan midfielder Gerard Deulofeu’s set-pieces proved too hot to handle for Feyenoord as two of his first-half free-kicks were turned home by Grzegorz Krychowiak and Stephane Mbia as a new-look Sevilla side comfortably cruised home.
Europe’s second-tier competition, so often derided for lacking the sparkle of its Champions League cousin, was ushered back into action with some standout individual displays and a glut of goals across its opening 24 group games.
There were hat-tricks from Dinamo Zagreb’s El Arbi Hilal Soudani, PAOK captain Stefanos Athanasiadis and Steaua Bucharest’s Claudiu Keseru, whose teams all enjoyed emphatic home wins.
Former European champions Inter and PSV Eindhoven also got off to winning starts, while SSC Napoli, whose manager Rafael Benitez was heavily criticized after his side failed to make it through a Champions League playoff, came back from a goal down to beat Sparta Prague 3-1 at the Stadio San Paolo.
Premier League Everton enjoyed a victorious return to the European stage after a five-year absence with a 4-1 home victory over VfL Wolfsburg, but Tottenham Hotspur were held to a drab 0-0 stalemate at Partizan Belgrade.
There have been numerous changes at Sevilla since they beat SL Benfica on penalties in Turin, Italy, to lift the trophy in May, with some of last season’s heroes departing for new challenges at more glamorous clubs.
Yet even without the likes of midfield playmaker Ivan Rakitic, who left for Barcelona, and leftback Alberto Moreno, who joined Liverpool, Sevilla looked sharp and purposeful, and well worth their Group G win.
They opened the scoring after eight minutes as a devilish, inswinging free-kick from Deulofeu found Krychowiak at the far post and he turned the ball into the net.
It was a case of deja vu on 31 minutes when they doubled the lead as the playmaker on loan from Barcelona curled in another precise set-piece that Mbia rose to head powerfully into the net.
Feyenoord offered little threat and their performance is unlikely to relieve the pressure on coach Fred Rutten, who replaced Ronald Koeman in the close-season, but has won only one of his opening five Dutch league matches.
Among the five former European champions in this season’s Europa League group stage, Steaua Bucharest made the most eye-catching start, thrashing AaB Fodbold 6-0 in Group J, with Keseru scoring three goals in 12 second-half minutes.
The two other three-goal hauls both arrived in the first half.
Dinamo Zagreb’s Soudani scored with two headers and a calmly taken effort from close range in a 5-1 win over Romanian side Astra Giurgiu to cap a superb week for Algeria forwards following Yacine Brahimi’s hat-trick for Porto in the Champions League.
PAOK’s Athanasiadis had wrapped up his hat-trick in 28 minutes as the Greek side beat Dinamo Minsk 6-1 in Group K.
Serie A’s Inter had to be patient in Ukraine against Dnipro Dnipropetrovsk in Group F before Danilo d’Ambrosio grabbed the only goal after 71 minutes, while PSV Eindhoven’s Luuk de Jong scored a first-half penalty in a 1-0 home win over Estoril in Group E.
SSC Napoli beat Sparta Prague in Group I thanks to a penalty from Gonzalo Higuain and two second-half goals from Belgium international Dries Mertens after Josef Husbauer had given the visitors an early lead.
Tottenham Hotspur drew a blank at Partizan Belgrade, with striker Harry Kane missing their best chance in the first minute, hitting the woodwork after the hosts failed to clear a corner.
The match was soured by reports of an anti-Semitic banner being displayed by the home fans.
“If it’s true, it’s unacceptable and I am very disappointed, it shows a lack of respect,” Tottenham manager Mauricio Pochettino told reporters.
Everton manager Roberto Martinez is perhaps a rarity among English Premier League managers in welcoming the mountain of extra fixtures that a successful run in the Europa League can bring about and he received an early reward with a comfortable 4-1 win.
“We have worked hard for 12 months to earn the right to play in the Europa League — the more competitions the better,” Martinez said after Leighton Baines set up two goals and scored a penalty against VfL Wolfsburg.
Celtic almost pulled off a surprise victory at Austrian champions Red Bull Salzburg in Group D after Scott Brown put them 2-1 ahead in the second half, but Jonatan Soriano netted with a superb free-kick to snatch a draw for the hosts.
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