6 Things We Learned from Europa League Last-32 First Leg
The secondary club competition of European football, the UEFA Europa League, saw its round-of-32 ties kick off on Thursday.
Instead of spreading out the ties like the UEFA Champions League round of 16 did this week, all 16 ties were played in one day.
Those 16 matches delivered plenty of juicy storylines to be satisfied with before the second leg occurs in a week's time.
Here is a look at six things we learned from the first leg of the round-of-32 ties in the Europa League.
The English Slump Continues
Tottenham Hotspur and Swansea City did absolutely nothing to help the current reputation of English Premier League clubs in continental knockout rounds.
Following in the not-so-glorified footsteps of Manchester City and Arsenal, Swansea failed to win at home as they earned a 0-0 draw with Napoli.
Spurs did themselves no favors either as they fell in Ukraine to Dnipro, 1-0.
The results moved the dubious continental record of EPL clubs in 2014 to three losses, one draw and no wins—a record no one expected less than a week ago.
Road Trend Continues into Europa League
Another striking trend that found its way from the Champions League to the Europa League this week is the success of road teams.
Only two road sides, Tottenham and Trabzonspor, failed to earn a positive result on their travels in the first leg.
Six clubs took home a win with them, while eight draws were recorded across Europe on Thursday.
The most successful road club of the day was Red Bull Salzburg, who turned in a massive shock at the Amsterdam Arena by downing Ajax 3-0.
Fiorentina, Valencia, Benfica, AZ Alkmaar and Ludogorets Razgrad also won on their European excursions.
Ajax Blew a Major Opportunity
The biggest disappointment from Thursday's play came from Eredivisie leaders Ajax.
The misery for the Dutch giants, who have failed to make a mark on the European stage for quite some time now, began in the 14th minute with a Jonatan Soriano penalty.
Red Bull Salzburg poured on two more goals in the next 20 minutes to almost destroy Ajax's chances of advancing on to the round of 16.
Frank de Boer's side had a promising draw in front of them with the winner of the Basel vs. Maccabi Tel Aviv tie awaiting in the next round, but that is now a distant dream after falling to the Austrian club.
We Are 1 Step Away from an Italian Showdown
Juventus and Fiorentina both won in dominant fashion in their respective first legs, which is a good sign for Italian football, until you look at the draw.
If both sides win next week against Trabzonspor and Esbjerg, respectively, they will square off in what should be billed as the marquee tie of the round of 16.
The two are currently separated by three places and 19 points in the Serie A table. A potential matchup in the Europa League would give Fiorentina a chance to steal glory away from the Old Lady of Italian football, who will host the final at Juventus Stadium on May 14.
If that isn't enough fun for you, the two sides are already scheduled to meet on March 9 in league play, just four days before the round of 16 begins.
Benfica's Road to Final Return Will Not Be Easy
Last season, Benfica fell to Chelsea in the Europa League final after cruising through the first part of the knockout phase.
This time around, the task seems to be a bit more difficult for Jorge Jesus' men as they hold a lead of a single goal heading into the second leg of their tie with PAOK.
The Greek side played well on the defensive end of the ball and face a small deficit that can be made up at the Estadio da Luz on Feb. 27.
Just one away goal could change the fate of the tie. The Eagles must be aware of that as they look to repeat as finalists.
Top Goalscorers Continue to Deliver
The two leading goalscorers in this year's edition of the Europa League were up to their scoring mastery again on Thursday.
Jonathan Soriano moved ahead of Roman Bezjak on the scoring chart after his brace helped Red Bull Salzburg pull off a massive upset in Amsterdam.
Soriano, who has six goals in the competition, may see the race for the Golden Boot with Bezjak move on to the round of 16 after the Ludogorets forward scored his fifth European goal of the campaign in his team's 1-0 win over Lazio.
For those interested in such facts, Libor Kozak of Lazio was last season's top scorer with eight goals.
Follow Joe on Twitter, @JTansey90.
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