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Europa League round of 32: first leg review

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Athletic Club v Real Madrid - La Liga Photo by Juan Manuel Serrano Arce/Getty Images

For folks who don’t follow the Europa League closely, the round of 32 is when things start to get interesting. In the group stage, the clubs from very competitive and strong leagues have to manage their roster to qualify while paying attention to the league race; once the round of 32 starts, those teams can push for it a bit more. And with eight teams having dropped down from the Champions League, the quality of competition improves. However, the luck of the draw is still important, and some teams still want to focus more on domestic leagues than the EL, which is sad really.

Spanish teams did pretty well—no shock that Atleti pushed aside Copenhagen 4-1 on the road, but Athletic Bilbao’s 3-1 away win against Spartak Moscow was a pleasant surprise. A late goal gave Red Bull Salzburg a 2-2 draw at Real Sociedad, and to be honest Sociedad need points in the league rather more at this point. And drawing Olympique Lyonnais proved to be as difficult as Villarreal feared it would be: some hope in the return leg, down 3-1, but not a lot—that third goal may prove critical.

Italian teams had a mixed day: Napoli lost 3-1 at home to Red Bull Leipzig, but basically, Napoli want to focus on Serie A, and decided to blow off the EL. Lazio lost 1-0 in Bucharest; Atalanta 3-2 to Dortmund; and AC Milan won 3-0 at Ludogorets.

Most of the other ties went about as you’d expect: Celtic beat Zenit 1-0, probably not enough; Arsenal easily dispatched Ostersunds.

Probable semifinalists: Atleti, Olympique Lyonnais, and two German and/or Italian teams that decide to focus on this competition. Or possibly Athletic Club if the draw favors them.