Today’s Europa League Semi-finals First Leg

Roma welcome Bayer Leverkusen at Stadio Olimpico

Emerging triumphant from an all-Italian tie in the Europa League quarter-finals, Roma finished the job against AC Milan after earning a slim lead from the first leg at San Siro and then winning 2-1 on home turf one week later.

Gianluca Mancini struck for a second time in the tie, before Paulo Dybala produced the killer blow soon after, and despite Zeki Celik‘s subsequent dismissal, the Giallorossi held on; extending their quest to make a third straight European final – but the first without former boss Jose Mourinho.

Mourinho’s men eked out a 1-0 aggregate win over Leverkusen in last year’s semis before losing to competition specialists Sevilla in the final, only 12 months after lifting the inaugural Europa Conference League trophy.

There have still been no Serie A successes since the Europa League replaced the UEFA Cup in 2009, but Roma and Atalanta BC have been kept apart in the semi-final draw and could yet meet in this season’s decider.

Should they get that far, the Giallorossi will be led out by club legend and current coach Daniele De Rossi, who has overseen 13 wins and just three losses in 20 games since taking temporary charge in January, following Mourinho’s sacking.

Granit Xhaka, Jonathan Tah and Robert Andrich of Bayer Leverkusen

De Rossi recently extended his contract in the capital and is now trying to sign off for the season by claiming some silverware and securing a top-five place in Serie A, thereby securing Champions League football for next term.

His side still occupy fifth place in the standings, just ahead of Atalanta, but following a 2-2 draw in last week’s Derby del Sole, they still have plenty of work remaining.

Indeed, it took a late Tammy Abraham equaliser to salvage that point against Napoli, while Roma lost a recent clash with fourth-placed Bologna; yet they could still claim a place at Europe’s top table by winning the Europa League.

Though Leverkusen also drew 2-2 last time out, their domestic situation contrasts somewhat with Thursday’s hosts, as they were sensationally crowned German champions with several weeks to spare.

The Bundesliga winners struck a last-gasp equaliser for the third time running to deny Stuttgart at the weekend, taking their remarkable unbeaten streak to 46 games in all competitions, of which they have won some 38.

The 44th match in that sequence was the 1-1 draw at West Ham United that booked a place in the Europa League semi-finals, and Jeremie Frimpong‘s late leveller helped set a new all-time mark for games undefeated throughout Europe’s top five leagues.

Naturally, Die Werkself’s top-flight points and goals tallies – 81 and 77, respectively – are both club records to this point of a season, and the admirable leadership of Xabi Alonso has seen the club finally shake off their ‘Neverkusen’ tag.

Also awaiting a trip to Berlin for the DFB-Pokal final, in which they will start favourites against rank outsiders Kaiserslautern, an historic treble is on the cards – the minor matter of becoming the first team to go through an entire Bundesliga campaign without losing is still up for grabs too.

Like De Rossi, the much-sought Xabi Alonso has confirmed he will stay put at his current club for another year at least, and a fascinating duel between two up-and-coming coaches will unfold over the next week, with the first act taking place in Italy’s ‘Eternal City’.


Marseille take on Atalanta BC for the first time

Ultimately aiming to reach the final of either the Europa League – or its predecessor, the UEFA Cup – for a fourth time, Marseille have a rich tradition in continental competition, having lost in the 1999, 2004 and 2018 deciders after being crowned champions of Europe back in 1993.

Marseille players

More recently, the French giants were eliminated by Feyenoord at this stage of the 2021-22 Europa Conference League, and they have now made it through to this season’s Europa League semis in the most dramatic of circumstances.

Burdened by a series of injuries and requiring academy players to fill in, Jean-Louis Gasset‘s side had suffered five straight defeats before taking on Benfica in the second leg of their quarter-final, but a 1-0 home win forced extra time: substitute Faris Moumbagna‘s late header kept OM in it, and after 30 more goalless minutes, they eventually prevailed 4-2 on penalties.

Shortly after being sacked mid-tournament by AFCON hosts Ivory Coast, Gasset stepped in to become Marseille’s third manager of the season, after Marcelino and Gennaro Gattuso both failed to last the pace, and the veteran coach has succeeded in steadying the ship.

The Mediterranean coast club have still not escaped choppy waters, though, as Sunday’s 2-1 win over Lens was their first in six Ligue 1 games: Pierre-Emerick Aubameyang‘s first-minute opener and Pape Gueye‘s late goal kept them in the hunt for European qualification.

Of course, winning the Europa League would provide a route straight into next term’s new-look Champions League, but Atalanta stand in their way of making another final.

Having won their last five home games in UEFA competition but struggled on the road, gaining a first-leg advantage is surely essential ahead of next week’s trip to Bergamo.

Following Sunday’s 2-0 win over Empoli, secured by a Mario Pasalic penalty and Ademola Lookman‘s second-half strike, Atalanta have come out on top in 11 of their last 14 home matches across all competitions.

As if that were not enough to concern Marseille ahead of the second leg, the Italian side are also unbeaten in nine European away matches as they prepare for their springtime sojourn to Provence.

La Dea have already made Europe sit up and take notice by beating Liverpool 3-0 at Anfield in the quarter-finals, so Stade Velodrome should not hold too many fears, in spite of its notorious reputation.

Atalanta BC players

After enduring a mid-season sticky spell, Atalanta have been on the up since their last-16 defeat of Sporting CP, and having just booked a place in the Coppa Italia final, they are also in the race to earn Champions League qualification via Serie A.

Gian Piero Gasperini‘s men sit sixth in the standings with five games remaining, and Italy’s top flight has already assured five places at Europe’s top table for next season – partly thanks to Atalanta and Roma reaching the Europa League semi-finals and boosting their national coefficient.

For all his previous achievements, ‘Gasp’ would surely consider leading La Dea out in their first European final the greatest: to date, the Bergamo club’s biggest honour was winning the 1963 Coppa Italia, and they have now reached the semis of a UEFA tournament for just the second time.

They could even meet domestic rivals Roma in Dublin – both teams are also battling out for that fifth spot in Serie A – and then become the first Italian team to lift the Europa League trophy. However, two tough games against Marseille must be negotiated before such dreams can be realised.



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