Talking points ahead of this week’s Europa League action

PA Sport Staff

The Europa League returns on Thursday with five British clubs involved in the last 32 of the competition.

Arsenal, Leicester, Manchester United, Rangers and Tottenham all have to travel for their first-leg ties.

Here, the PA news agency looks at some of the key talking points ahead of the fixtures.

Can Bale find Spurs spark?

Brighton and Hove Albion v Tottenham Hotspur – Premier League – AMEX Stadium
Tottenham boss Jose Mourinho (right) criticised Gareth Bale recently for giving a “totally wrong” impression about his fitness on social media (Andrew Boyers/PA)

Gareth Bale has been a bit-part player since his Tottenham return from Real Madrid, starting only two Premier League games and looking a shadow of the man who thrilled the fans in his first spell in north London. Boss Jose Mourinho even criticised Bale for giving a “totally wrong” impression about his fitness on social media after the Welshman missed the recent FA Cup defeat at Everton. But Bale showed some signs in a cameo appearance at Manchester City last weekend he still has the talent to trouble top defences, and Mourinho will be hoping that a Europa League date with Austrian outfit Wolfsberger in Budapest can act as a springboard to better times.

Double take on neutral soil

Karaiskakis Stadium
Arsenal will play their home leg against Portuguese side Benfica at the Karaiskakis Stadium in Greece, while coronavirus travel restrictions means the away game will take place in Rome (Nick Mashiter/PA)

Nothing sums up European football’s difficulties amid coronavirus travel restrictions more than Arsenal’s tie with Portuguese side Benfica. Both legs will be played at neutral venues due to the current restrictions. Benfica will host the first leg in Rome’s Stadio Olimpico on Thursday night. A week later the return will not take place in London, but in Greece at the Georgios Karaiskakis Stadium – home of Olympiacos. Away goals, however, will count as normal, and Arsenal will be mindful of that after losing to Olympiacos in those circumstances at this stage of the competition 12 months ago.

United out to regain momentum

When Manchester United won 2-1 at Fulham on January 20 to look down on the rest of the Premier League, things were looking rosy for Ole Gunnar Solskjaer’s side. Four weeks on and United trail neighbours Manchester City by seven points after winning only one of their last five league games. Solskjaer is likely to make changes for the clash with Real Sociedad, which is taking place in Turin due to the pandemic, but the Norwegian needs to rediscover the winning habit. One familiar face will be in the Sociedad side – Belgium winger Adnan Januzaj who broke into the United team as a teenager and made 63 appearances for the club between 2012 and 2017.

Leicester depth tested

Brendan Rodgers’ Leicester face a test of their resources against Slavia Prague in the Czech Republic. The Foxes are still fighting on three fronts, third in the Premier League and with an FA Cup quarter-final against Manchester United to look forward to next month. But Rodgers must shuffle his pack in the Czech capital. Full-backs James Justin, who is out for the season, Timothy Castagne and Ricardo Pereira are all missing, as are Ayoze Perez, Dennis Praet, Wes Morgan and Wesley Fofana. With a league trip to Aston Villa looming on Sunday, Rodgers has to weigh up his team selection.

Gerrard needs Euro fillip

Rangers v Kilmarnock – Scottish Premiership – Ibrox Stadium
Rangers manager Steven Gerrard said he felt “let down” by five Rangers players breaching Covid-19 restrictions (Andrew Milligan/PA)

Rangers’ preparations for their trip to Belgium to take on Royal Antwerp were thrown into chaos when an internal investigation revealed five players had broken Covid-19 rules. Boss Steven Gerrard said he felt “let down” by those who had breached Scotland’s strict lockdown restrictions. The five players were named as Bongani Zungu, Nathan Patterson, Calvin Bassey, Dapo Mebude and Brian Kinnear and removed from the club while they isolate. Gerrard insists the episode will “not affect us as a group”, but there is no denying it has been a huge distraction for the former England captain.

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