Ludogorets 0-3 AC Milan
As Italian clubs come under fire for prioritising Serie A over European competitions, Milan proved otherwise as they took no prisoners in Bulgaria. Gennaro Gattuso named a full-strength squad led up top by Patrick ‘Wonderkid’ Cutrone, who opened the scoring with a smart glancing header just before half-time.
Milan deserved the lead but in true rossoneri fashion, they looked nervous at the back after going in front, with Ludogorets pilling on the pressure and rattling the crossbar early in the second half. Ignazio Abate was a very lucky man not to be sent off after a rash slide tackle in the box after already being booked, but was saved by an offside call. It fell on Cutrone to again pulled the team out of danger by winning a penalty after being shoved in the back by defender, Cosmin Moti.
Abate’s replacement, Ricardo Rodriguez, dispatched the penalty confidently to give some relief to Milan, and crush Ludogorets’ confidence working so hard to build momentum. After the sucker-punch penalty, Milan finally went into cruise-control, not that you think that with Gattuso pacing the touchline, barking orders which rang around the entire stadium.
His persistence paid off, with Milan grabbing a vital third in stoppage time goal through all of players, Fabio Borini, to kill off the tie before the first leg was over.
Without trying to get too carried away (it is Milan after all), Gattuso’s side are becoming dark horses to go all the way in the competition. However, with all due respect to Ludogorets, Milan are yet to come up against a team who will really give them a run for their new-found money.
Napoli 1-3 RB Leipzig
From a full-strength team, to the polar opposite, as Maurizio Sarri fielded a much weaker side to the one currently tearing up Serie A. Jose Callejon was the only starter from the front-three which has propelled the club to top of the Italian league as well as becoming second-highest goalscoring team.
With Sarri drawing criticism for putting all of his eggs in the one Scudetto basket, he did little to prove the press wrong as his side were put to the sword against Leipzig at a practically empty Stadio San Paolo.
Napoli initially went ahead through 21-year-old winger, Adam Ounas, scoring his first goal for the club with a powerful low drive into the corner of the net. That was as good as things got for Sarri’s men as Leipzig looked increasingly dangerous on the break. Dangerous soon turned to lethal as just after the hour mark, Yussuf Poulsen cleverly dummied Kevin Kampl’s low cross, leaving Timo Werner to equalise for the German side.
Poulsen was involved again for Leipzig’s second goal, squaring the ball unselfishly for Bruma, who finished into an empty net. Failing to learn from their mistakes, Napoli were punished yet again on the break in stoppage time, when Emil Forsberg fed Werner, and one of Germany’s brightest young stars made no mistake in killing off the game.
While Sarri will draw criticism again, given the attendance at the game it seems the Napoli faithful are in the same mindset as the manager; win the Scudetto at all costs.
Borussia Dortmund 3-2 Atalanta
Atalanta may have lost some of their best talent last summer, but that has in no way stopped them from having another solid domestic season and a superb European run. In Dortmund, they fell behind after half an hour as Andre Schurrle poked past Etrit Berisha from Lukas Piszczek’s cross.
However, Gian Piero Gasperini rallied the troops at half-time as they came out flying with Josip Ilicic capitalised on Jeremy Toijan missing a header from a cross, with a fine curling finish from an incredibly tight angle to bring the Italian side level.
Ilicic was the hero again as Roman Burki could only parry Bryan Cristante’s effort and the Slovenian adapted his body quickly to finish impressively into the bottom corner, and send Atalanta fans into dreamland.
But, they were rudely awoken by Michy Batshuayi as the Belgian found space on the edge of the box to hammer one past Berisha and even things up again.
It was to be the night of the ex-Chelsea men as on-loan Batshuayi grabbed the winner in the 91st minute after Rafael Toloi’s stabbed clearance went straight to Mario Gotze, who fed the striker, leaving him to finish the game and crush Italian hearts.
Opposite to the first two games, this tie is far from over, with Atalanta only needing a performance half as impressive as Thursday night to stand a solid chance of progressing.
Steaua Bucharest 1-0 Lazio
In perhaps the upset of the round, Lazio were no where near their best as they were beaten by a Harlem-Eddy Gnohere strike after half an hour played. It was the French striker’s fourth goal of the Europa League campaign, and for all their dominance, Lazio couldn’t respond.
The Italian side boasted a strong squad, with the likes of Sergej Milinkovic-Savic, Felipe Caicedo and Nani offering goal-threat, however, they look a much weaker side without Ciro Immobile starting. The Italian striker has scored 26 goals so far this season, but not even his form could inspire Simone Inzaghi’s side to equalise.
Whilst it’s frustration for Lazio, perhaps highlight of the round was seeing Steaua’s owner celebrating with the fans after the game, a picture of joy spread wide on his face. A moment to enjoy, as Lazio are sure to come back with a vengeance in the Italian capital in the second leg.