Blues, Spurs eye Europa League semis

AFP, PARIS

Thu, Mar 07, 2013 - Page 18

They could both be forgiven for dreaming of more lucrative adventures in the UEFA Champions League next season, but today Chelsea and Tottenham Hotspur have their eyes focused on a place in the Europa League semi-finals.

Both must put thoughts of the Champions League aside at least for 90 minutes as they prepare to meet Steaua Bucharest and Inter respectively.

Spurs, twice winners of the Europa League’s predecessor tournament, the UEFA Cup, would have been competing in the Champions League this season had Chelsea’s triumph in the final over Bayern Munich not torpedoed those ambitions, but the Blues themselves suffered the heartache of being dumped into the Europa League melting pot when they became the first Champions League winners to exit in the group stage.

Much water has flowed under Chelsea’s Stamford Bridge since they saw off Bayern, with Champions League-winning coach Roberto di Matteo unceremoniously sacked and Rafa Benitez installed as an interim measure — to the dismay of many of the club’s supporters.

Yet Benitez, while recognizing that Champions League qualification is the overriding goal, would happily lift a trophy which would enable Chelsea to complete the set of European Cup, the now defunct Cup Winners’ Cup and also the UEFA Cup/UEFA Europa League.

To date, only Bayern, Ajax and Juventus have managed to win all three.

Benitez has to juggle with the additional burden of a top-four league finish with next weekend’s FA Cup quarter-final at Manchester United also looming.

“We have to go to Bucharest before we can concentrate on [the United] game,” Benitez said.

Benitez has a selection dilemma regarding skipper John Terry, who is returning from a knee injury, while Gary Cahill is getting over a virus, leaving Branislav Ivanovic and David Luiz as the central defensive partnership.

The former Liverpool boss, who won the Champions League at Anfield and the UEFA Cup with Valencia, said of Terry: “He’s training. Match fitness and training sessions are two different things, and he’s improving.”

Spurs counterpart Andre Villas-Boas can be satisfied that his side are on a roll after they beat Arsenal on Sunday to move third.

The tie will have a job to reach the thrill levels of the Champions League group matches against Inter two seasons ago, when Gareth Bale hit a hat-trick at the San Siro, only to finish on the losing side, before Spurs won the return.

Teammate Michael Dawson says with Bale around, anything is possible.

“He’s one of the best players in the world at the moment and probably the best in the world for me right now,” Dawson said.

Villas-Boas has already won the tournament with Porto, two years ago, before his ill-fated spell at Stamford Bridge.

Spurs have twice lifted the UEFA Cup, which Inter have themselves won on three occasions, and the hosts will beware of a side which can boast five wins in six matches on their European travels this season.

Newcastle United complete the English contingent, but, in the absence of injured skipper Fabricio Coloccini, face a trip into the unknown when they take on Guus Hiddink’s Anji Makhachkala of Russia in Moscow.

Makhachkala have won all their “home” games to date, including a group success over Liverpool. The Caucasus-based side play their home matches in Moscow as their home republic of Dagestan is deemed too dangerous.

“It would be massive if we could beat this team. They are a really strong side,” Newcastle manager Alan Pardew said. “Particularly as they include former Barcelona striker Samuel Eto’o.”

Other ties see former European champions SL Benfica host Girondins de Bordeaux and VfB Stuttgart take on SS Lazio, who have to play two home European matches behind closed doors for their fans’ racist behavior.