Valencia and Athletic Bilbao are struggling in their Europa League semifinals, after losing out to Atletico Madrid and Sporting Lisbon Thursday. But there's a glimmer of hope; they will both play at home next time.
Four teams from the Iberian peninsula locked horns Thursday evening in the Europa League semifinal first legs. Atletico Madrid won 4-2 at home against Spanish league rivals Valencia, while Sporting Lisbon beat visitors Athletic Bilbao 2-1.
Neither of the two winners are exactly home and dry in their attempt to reach the final on May 9 in Bucharest, but they have done what's typically expected of a home side in the first leg in Europe - secured an advantage.
Atletico Madrid 4-2 Valencia
Valencia began brightly taking the ball into the Atletico penalty area within the first minute but failed to make anything of it.
Atletico created their first decent chance in the 10th minute, with Adrian Lopez taking the ball into the area, beating a defender and getting a shot off that caused Valencia goalkeeper Diego Alves little trouble.
In the 15th minute, a free kick from the edge of the area for Madrid, but it's headed away for a corner. The resulting corner kick floats strait into the grateful arms of the Valencia netminder. Atletico failed to make any more out of a second corner kick less than a minute later. Still the Madrid side looked the far more confident and were rewarded with a stroke of luck in the 18th minute.
Arda Turan dribbled into the area past a couple of defenders to the goalkeeper's left and cut back the ball just as he was reaching the byline. The ball hit a defender and took a bounce right onto the head of Falcao who guided the ball into the net.
By the half-hour marker Atletico looked the stronger side, with five attempts on the Valencia goal compared to just one by the guests. Set pieces just weren't working for them on the night, as another harmless corner in the 38th minute showed.
Five minutes before the break, Turan the provider became the villain, when he slid into Ricardo Costa's legs with the studs showing, earning himself the yellow card.
Just seconds before Atletico's Gabi came out of an aerial challenge with Fegouli the worse for wear after an apparent elbow in the chops, forcing him to go off for repairs.
Caught out at a corner
Valencia caught the Atletico defenders with their thoughts already in the dressing room as the first half went into injury time. Tino Costa delivered inswinging corner from the keeper's right. Rami won the duel in the air to send the ball to the net-minder's left upright, where Jonas was free to tap the ball into the net for the equalizer.
Four minutes into the second half Atletico regained the lead. Midfielder Diego dropped a free kick into the six-yard box, which Miranda headed past a helpless Alves in the Valencia goal.
The Madrid side padded their lead in the 54th minute, as Adrián López ran past his marker into the box and fired the ball across the goal, eluding Alves' outstretched right hand.
A dangerous cross from a Valencia free kick caused some confusion in the Atletico area in the 64th minute, but 19-year-old Belgian goalkeeper Thibaut Courtois was on his toes.
Shortly afterwards Alves, his counterpart in the Valencia goal, was called into service, making two saves in quick succession to Lopez and Turan.
In the 71st minute Alves had to make another save, probably the best of the game as he rose high to tip a curling free kick by the former Bremen and Wolfsburg midfielder Diego over the bar.
Seven minutes later Falcao put the result of the first leg beyond doubt and gave Valencia a very large mountain to climb in the return leg, scoring the prettiest goal of the night. The striker fooled two defenders who had rushed back to confront him after he had seemed to be in the clear, pushed the ball onto his left foot and launched a sweet strike from the top of the box into the top-right corner.
For the next 15 minutes it looked like that was the way it would end, but four minutes into injury time, Valencia took advantage of a corner to the goalkeeper's right. Tino Costa delivered an outswinger right onto the head of Ricardo Costa, who gave Valencia an all-important second away goal ahead of the second leg.
The 4-2 final score, though, gives Atletico a clear advantage when they travel to Valencia.
Sporting Lisbon 2-1 Athletic Bilbao
Sporting, who were playing in front of their home crowd in Lisbon looked the more attacking side in the first few minutes of play, and won the first free kick, from 35 yards out. However, Emilano Insua's hard shot was punched away by Gorka Iraizoz in the Athletic Bilbao goal.
Bilbao's first attempt at goal came in the 12th minute when Llorente rose to meet a cross from a corner with his head, but watched the ball drift over the target.
Twenty minutes into the match, Sporting continued to have more of the play but still had nothing to show for it. Four minutes later a corner kick was easily cleared by the Bilbao defense.
Late in the first half the match had become rather scrappy, but Sporting did create a half chance in the 43rd minute, when Joao Pereira set up Ricky van Wolfswinkel for a chance from well out, which sailed harmlessly to the right of Iraizoz's cage.
The two teams left the pitch for tea with neither side having come close to drawing first blood.
A better second half
Athletic Bilbao, though, smashed the goose egg ten minutes after the two teams switched sides. Everybody in the Sporting defense seemed to forget about Athletic defender Aurtenetxe, who had moved up front for a free kick taken from outside the area by Markel Susaeta. Aurtenetxe found himself completely unmarked and in possession of the ball after it took a deflection off the free kick. He hit a volley past the keeper from close range that any striker would have been happy with.
As the second half proceeded, one got the impression that Athletic would have been well satisfied to leave the Portuguese capital with a single away goal and for their part, Sporting didn't look like causing them too much trouble.
This all changed in the 75th minute when Bilbao made a real hash of clearing the ball out of their area. The ball fell fortuitously in front of Emiliano Insúa who headed it home for the equalizer.
This goal from nothing brought the Lisbon crowd to its feet, giving Sporting renewed appetite for the attack. Five minutes later, Diego Capel, who moved from the left to the right flank earlier in the half struck a long, low shot from the top of the box that found its way past a couple of defenders andthe keeper's outstretched hand; the shot nestled just inches inside the post. Suddenly, Sporting were in the driver's seat, but they weren't able to add to their lead in the last 10 minutes plus injury time.
The result leaves the outcome of the tie wide open. Sporting will be glad to travel to Bilbao for the second leg with the opportunity to defend the one-goal margin.
Author: Chuck Penfold
Editor: Mark Hallam