3 players to watch during UEFA Europa League's Round of 32 action today
The UEFA Champions League gave us four impressive games this week. Okay, three and Manchester United/Sevilla, but the European action is far from over. Even though it sometimes doesn't receive deserved recognition, you shouldn't forget the Europa League. The field is deep this season. Ten different teams have the strength to win.
Today's fare is a single match shy a full slate. Thirty teams will try to join CSKA Moscow in the Round of 16. Most sides have at least one player worth monitoring closely. Here are three especially intriguing stars.
Mario Balotelli, Nice
Nice had a golden opportunity to move one step closer to the Round of 16 this past Thursday. Lucien Favre's side was up 2-0 during in the first half thanks to two goals from Mario Balotelli. The Gym couldn't hang on, however. Having lost 3-2 at home, they must come away from Moscow with a two-goal win to advance.
The tie rests on Super Mario's shoulders. The Italian striker has 21 goals in 28 appearances this season, including six in an equal number of Europa League appearances. He's netted eight times in his last 10 matches. Can he come through for his side once again? Can they come through for him?
Sergej Milinkovic-Savic, Lazio
Lazio suffered perhaps the biggest upset in the 16 first-leg matches. They lost 1-0 to Steaua Bucaresti. With the second leg in Rome, there is every chance to turn the tie around. That said, Lazio's recent form has not been impressive. One would expect players such as Ciro Immobile and Luis Alberto would be key, but Milinkovic-Savic could be more important.
The Serbian playmaker has been key for Lazio. He has nine goals and three assists in 28 appearances between Serie A and the Europa League and possesses the right mixture of physicality and quality to dominate any game from a more defensive position. Chances are names such as Immobile, Alberto and Felipe Caicedo will bag the goals, but keep an eye on the 22-year-old Serbian. He is the engine that drives Lazio's midfield.
Michy Batshuayi, Borussia Dortmund
Last but not least, we H.A.V.E to mention Europe's hottest striker. Okay, that might be a reach but it is impossible to deny the huge impact Michy Batshuayi has had in his first four games with Borussia Dortmund. The Belgian striker netted a brace against Atalanta during the first leg, including the game-winning goal in stoppage time. He already has five goals in his first four games with BVB.
Sorry, I'll stop writing while Antonio Conte leaves the room.
Anyway, the 24-year-old has filled the void left by Pierre-Emerick Aubameyang, but can he play in as difficult an environment as a hostile Italian stadium? Atalanta have been quite good at home this season. The tie is far from settled. La Dea has an away goal. A 1-0 result will see the Goddess through.
Not that Dortmund are likely to sit back. Peter Stoger will direct his energetic side to play on the counter. Batshuayi will have to be sharp to continue his scalding form.