Soccer Europa Conference - Play-Offs 17 March 2023
Sivasspor vs Fiorentina - Match Preview
A first European quarter-final is within sight for Sivasspor, but they need to overturn a 1-0 loss from the first leg of this UEFA Conference League (UECL) round of 16 against Fiorentina. Achieving that will require ending a three-game losing streak in all competitions, including a 3-0 reverse to İstanbulspor on Monday which left them in the Süper Lig relegation zone. They will be without Max Gradel who was sent off in the first leg and he doubled up on Monday with another dismissal!
Playing at home may not work to their advantage as Sivasspor has lost two of their four European games at Yeni 4 Eylül in this season (W1, D1), although they ran out convincing 3-0 winners against FC Cluj in their last continental outing here. After starting the season winless in their first eight home matches, they’ve at least been more competitive in recent fixtures here, including a win against Beşiktaş. That shows what they’re capable of and they’ll hope that a win here will have a positive effect on their domestic battle against relegation.
That won’t be straightforward as Fiorentina have bossed Turkish clubs in competitive matches (W8, L1). That lone loss came in this season’s campaign against İstanbul Başakşehir in the group stages, adding a further layer of intrigue here. A win on a return to Turkey would be sweet for the visitors who have won their last seven UECL matches, although the last two have come by a slender one-goal margin.
Any nerves could be offset by the confidence of a five-game winning run in all competitions, but they remain outside of the European spots in Serie A, putting extra emphasis on UECL progression. The free-scoring Viola have enjoyed travelling, winning each of their last three UECL away games ‘to nil’ and scoring 10 goals during the process.
📋 Key battle: Ali Şaşal Vural could be crucial for Sivasspor’s hopes of progression - especially if it goes to penalties - with the shot-stopper boasting 38 saves including one penalty in UECL this season. He could be challenged by Arthur Cabral, who has been all-action for Fiorentina either scoring (G6) or picking up a yellow card (YC2) in his last seven competitive matches.
⚡ Hot stat: A red card has been awarded in four of Fiorentina’s last five away UECL matches.
AZ Alkmaar vs Lazio - Match Preview
AZ Alkmaar sealed a 2-1 victory after conceding the opener last week in Rome, and they now look good to go at least one step further than they managed in last season’s UEFA Europa Conference League (UECL) campaign. That first-leg win strengthened AZ’s positive record against Italian opponents (W4, D1, L2) and with a 1-0 Erepisie success over the weekend keeping the Alkmaarders in the title race, Pascal Jansen’s men should be quietly confident here.
Further spurring that belief is the fact that the only side - previous UECL finalists and Erepisie leaders Feyenoord - have managed to defeat AZ on their own patch within 90 minutes this season (W13, D5). The European games within that run all ended in victory (W6), and in part helped the Cheese Heads to become the only side to win back-to-back UECL groups.
Lazio’s preparation for this game wasn’t quite as impressive as they played out an uninspired 0-0 draw with Bologna, leaving them just about clinging on to a spot inside Serie A’s top four. Any resurgence from the Eagles here would be nothing short of historic, as on each of the four occasions in which they lost the first leg of a European knockout tie at home, they were ultimately eliminated.
A poor return of just one win from Lazio’s last 16 European road trips only serves to throw more cold water over any hopes they had of keeping the UECL trophy in the city of Rome (W1, D6, L9). Maurizio Sarri’s men enter this clash as tepid favourites after a run of four consecutive away clean sheets, yet their meagre 33 per cent win-rate against Dutch opposition suggests they may not back it up with aplomb (W3, D2, L4).
📋 Players to watch: Jesper Karlsson has been right in the thick of it lately, contributing to all of AZ’s goals during March (G2, A2). Trying to outdo him will be Pedro, the highly decorated Spaniard can still cut the mustard at 35 years old as he’s shown with four goals across his last seven European outings.
⚡ Hot stat: AZ Alkmaar have never been eliminated from a European knockout tie after winning the first leg away from home (W8).
Villarreal vs Anderlecht - Match Preview
Seeking a second continental trophy in three seasons, Villarreal escaped Lotto Park with a hard-fought 1-1 draw in the first leg of this UEFA Europa Conference League (UECL) round of 16 ties. They remain firm favourites to proceed despite the disappointment of squandering the lead, especially with eight of the previous nine seasons seeing at least one major continental trophy lifted by a Spanish club.
Because of this, and their tenuous-looking position of sixth in La Liga, the emphasis is on the Yellow Submarine to start strongly as they bid to extend their unbeaten home record in this competition (W3, D1). That run in itself indicates someone’s potential to make themselves a hero here, with all of those wins seeing one individual player net at least a brace.
Despite Anderlecht starting this week ten points adrift of fourth place – and guaranteed European qualification – in the Belgian Pro League, head coach Brian Riemer has expressed his satisfaction at the first-leg result. Riemer said that his players “did everything” he asked, as they brought to an end the Purple & White’s preceding six-game losing streak (90 min only) against sides from Europe’s top-five leagues.
As a side narrative, this month also marks the 40th anniversary of a famous UEFA Cup win at Valencia for Anderlecht, registered en route to what remains their most recent continental silverware. However, they’ve won just one away game against Spanish opponents since lifting that trophy (D2, L6), further underlining the improbability of their progress here.
📋 Players to watch: Villarreal’s Manu Trigueros netted in the first leg, for his second goal in succession to arrive between the 16th-30th minute. Unlike him, Anderlecht’s Benito Raman didn’t score in Brussels but was described by coach Riemer as a “big asset” afterwards. He vindicated that praise in Sunday’s 2-0 win over Cercle Brugge by assisting the second goal, impressively doing so within two minutes of his deployment from the bench!
⚡ Hot streak: Villarreal’s last seven home games to be won or lost have been settled by a one-goal margin.
West Ham vs AEK Larnaca - Match Preview
West Ham’s UEFA Europa Conference League (UECL) campaign has been the highlight of their season as winning all nine European matches this term contrasts sharply with their Premier League struggles. Sunday’s 1-1 draw with Aston Villa left them mired in relegation danger so they’ll hope to put a smile back on the faces of supporters by building on their 2-0 first-leg win over AEK Larnaca.
It's not all doom and gloom for the Hammers as they’re unbeaten at home this calendar year (W2, D2) and usually enjoy European nights at the London Stadium, as in three of their four home UECL games this term they were ahead by the half-hour mark. Another fast start could see them on their way as they seek to emulate last season’s run to the Europa League semi-finals.
As just the second Cypriot side ever to make the last 16 of a European competition, Larnaca has arguably exceeded expectations in getting this far so overturning their first-leg defeat would be an extraordinary achievement. The omens aren’t good as they’ve won just one of their last six competitive fixtures (D1, L4), although they still sit in second place in Cyprus’ First position.
This is their first-ever trip to England, but they are unbeaten in three previous visits to the British Isles against Cliftonville, Cork City and Dundalk in Europa League qualifying rounds (W2, D1). Having not won a European away game at an opponent’s own ground since August 2019 though, this is a significant step up for the Guardians, who will unsurprisingly start the match as big outsiders.
📋 Players to watch: Saïd Benrahma (WHU) has scored three of his last five goals between the 15th and 30th minute, including one against Villa on Sunday. Larnaca may look to captain Ivan Trichkovski for late inspiration after three of his last six club goals arrived after the 80th minute.
⚡ Hot stat: Larnaca has collected an average of 1.33 yellow cards per UECL game this term (West Ham: 2.33).
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