Madrid ‘suffer’ in Leipzig draw to reach Champions League quarters

PARIS: Liverpool and Xabi Alonso’s Bayer Leverkusen are the standout contenders to go all the way in this season’s Europa League with both teams this week heading east for last-16 ties they will be expected to win comfortably.

Jurgen Klopp’s side are one of four British teams still alive in the competition and hoping to go all the way to this season’s final, which will be played in Dublin on May 22.

However, while Brighton and Hove Albion, West Ham United and Rangers all face difficult last-16 ties, it would be a major surprise if Liverpool slipped up against Sparta Prague and missed out on the quarter-finals.

Sparta are top of the Czech league and have had some fine results in Europe this season, qualifying from their group ahead of Real Betis and then eliminating Galatasaray in the knockout round playoffs.

Yet Liverpool are in fantastic form and still in contention to win a remarkable quadruple in Klopp’s final season as manager at Anfield.

Having won the League Cup, the Reds are top of the Premier League and also through to the last eight of the FA Cup.

The biggest danger for them heading to the Stadion Letna in Prague is that their minds may be on Sunday’s huge meeting with Manchester City, who sit a single point behind Klopp’s men at the top of the Premier League.

They lost their last two away games in the group stage, at Toulouse and in Belgium to Union Saint-Gilloise, and Klopp may again choose the Europa League to give an opportunity to some of his exciting youngsters.

Meanwhile, Mohamed Salah has played just once since returning injured from the Africa Cup of Nations and this game could also come too soon for the Egyptian.

Liverpool are aiming to secure a place in the March 15 draw for the quarter-finals, which would also reveal the identity of their potential semifinal opponents.

There is the prospect that they could yet cross paths with Leverkusen, who are enjoying a stunning campaign under former Liverpool midfielder Alonso.

Unbeaten all season, the 1988 UEFA Cup winners are 10 points clear at the top of the Bundesliga with 10 games left.

A first German title is their priority, but they remain in the German Cup and will be fully expected to see off Qarabag of Azerbaijan to reach the quarter-finals in Europe.

The Werkself head to Baku for the second time this season for Thursday’s first leg, having beaten Qarabag home and away in the group stage with a 6-1 aggregate scoreline.

Through to the knockout phase in their first ever European campaign, Brighton are in Italy to play a Roma side enjoying a revival under Daniele De Rossi.

Thursday’s first leg at the Stadio Olimpico will see De Rossi come up against his friend, the Brighton boss Roberto De Zerbi.

“I have big respect for him. I knew he could be a great coach because as a player he showed an incredible personality,” De Zerbi said recently of his counterpart.

“He thinks the same as me about football. He is a passionate person and we are friends, but I hope to win.”

West Ham, who won last season’s Europa Conference League, are in Germany to face a Freiburg side who are fresh from holding Bayern Munich to a draw in the Bundesliga last weekend.

It will be the third meeting of the clubs in the competition this season, with the Hammers coming out on top both times in the group stage.

Rangers, beaten Europa League finalists two years ago, surprisingly finished top of their group but their reward is a tough tie against Benfica, with the first leg in Lisbon.

“It will be the first game we will be underdogs, that’s the reality. But that doesn’t mean that we cannot qualify,” Rangers manager Philippe Clement, whose side top the Scottish Premiership, said after the draw.

Benfica’s city rivals Sporting host Atalanta on Wednesday, while AC Milan take on Slavia Prague and Marseille play Villarreal.

The Spanish side’s coach is Marcelino Garcia Toral, who quit as Marseille boss earlier this season after just three months in charge.

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