It was a mixed night for English clubs returning to Europa League action with wins for Tottenham Hotspur and Chelsea, a draw for Newcastle United and a damaging defeat for Liverpool.
Once again, it was the Gareth Bale show at White Hart Lane as Tottenham overcame Lyon 2-1, with the Welsh wonder scoring two sublime free-kicks, the second which came in time added on, either side of a wonder strike by Samuel Umtiti to give Spurs a slender advantage ahead of the return leg in France next week.
Tottenham boss Andre Villas-Boas went as far as to compare Bale – whose brace saw some bwin punters get their money back on losing bets – to Cristiano Ronaldo afterwards.
“Yes, he’s going through a great individual moment, scoring lots of goals for the team,” commented the Portuguese.
“I think it’s his best goalscoring season for Tottenham. You just see that the player is really enjoying his football and taking a buzz out of it.
“We’ve seen him score three in two games from this situation and there is that possibility, there is an expectation because the player strikes it well and anything can happen, most likely a goal is likely to happen.”
Spurs are 12/5 to win the second leg at Stade Gerland in 90 minutes, with the draw at 23/10 and Lyon an 11/10 shot, while the Londoners are 3/5 to advance to the last 16 by any means required.
Chelsea also won, beating Sparta Prague 1-0 in the Czech Republic in a match that was uneventful until substitute Oscar struck late on, within a minute of being introduced, to put the Blues in a strong position for the second leg at Stamford Bridge.
Manager Rafa Benitez called on his side to be less profligate, saying: “Eighteen attempts away is not bad, but we have to be more clinical in attack. The first 20 minutes we were in control. We had some half chances; it was a cross, we weren’t there. We were in control.
“After this 20 minutes they were pushing and pushing. The team, as a team, had problems defending. We changed a little bit in the second half. I think the concentration of the team was much better, the intensity in defence was much better and then we had more control.”
Chelsea are strong favourites at 3/10 to win the second leg, while you can get 4/1 on the draw and 35/4 on a Sparta win (the Blues are 1/20 to go through).
Elsewhere, Newcastle played out a goalless draw with Ukrainian side Metalist Kharkiv at St James’ Park to leave the Magpies’ hopes of reaching the last 16 in the balance.
Papiss Cisse twice had goals ruled out for offside as the Toon failed to make the breakthrough.
Alan Pardew disagreed with the decisions but was pleased with how his side performed.
“Both goals are onside and fundamentally the officials got them wrong,” he said.
“It was a great game, they are good side and we played a great game tonight, we were physical and technical enough and in these games those are the margins.
“I can accept one but twice is tough to take. The law says it should favour the striker and both those decisions were level.”
Newcastle are now 51/50 outsiders to go through, with bwin making them 31/10 to win the second leg, compared to 19/20 on Metalist. The draw is 11/5.
But it is Liverpool that have it all to do after losing 2-0 to Zenit St Petersburg in Russia after late strikes in quick succession by Hulk and veteran Sergei Semak put Luciano Spalletti’s side in control ahead of the second leg at Anfield.
Despite this, Brendan Rodgers feels his side can overturn the deficit in a week’s time.
“There is no way the tie is over – we are more than capable of getting the goals back,” said the Northern Irishman.
“What gives us hope is that we created enough to win the game.”
If you agree, you can back Liverpool to make the last 16 at 11/5, while they are an 18/25 chance to win the second leg, with the draw at 27/10 and Zenit a 18/5 chance.