No laughing matter
In an unusually crammed and crowded season, the Europa League, which resumes on Thursday with 26 group games, presents clubs fighting for domestic glory with a tricky balancing act.
The English, Italian and Spanish league leaders, Tottenham, Real Sociedad and AC Milan, as well as Bundesliga high-flyers Bayer Leverkusen, have all slipped up already in Europe’s second-tier competition and cannot afford another mistake.
Yet the demands of a condensed season mean their managers are walking two tightropes at once.
Real Sociedad, beaten at home by Napoli on the second matchday, have lost veteran David Silva to a hamstring injury on Sunday ahead of their trip to Group F leaders AZ Alkmaar.
Yet even as they travel to the Netherlands, they need to plan for Sunday’s crucial game against Villarreal, who are third in La Liga.
Real Sociedad’s only consolation is that Villarreal must cross the Mediterranean twice as they visit second-place Maccabi Tel-Aviv in Group I.
Tottenham ony lead Group J on goal difference in head-to-head matches ahead of Royal Antwerp and LASK Linz.
They too lost a key veteran when centre-back Toby Alderweireld suffered a groin muscle injury against Manchester City on Saturday.
Tottenham manager Jose Mourinho came unstuck when he rotated his squad in Antwerp and lost.
Yet with a visit to third-place Chelsea in the Premier League on Sunday, he may rest starters at home against winless Ludogorets.
That could give Gareth Bale a chance to score his first Europa League goal since March 2013, when he hit the opener as Spurs eliminated Inter Milan in the last 16.
AC Milan travel to Lille seeking not only for a victory, which would put them top of Group H, but also revenge.
Lille won 3-0 at the San Siro on the last matchday with 23-year-old Turk Yusuf Yazici hitting his second hat-trick of this year’s competition.
Milan will be without talisman Zlatan Ibrahimovic who suffered a thigh muscle injury in the Serie A victory over Napoli on Sunday.
Bayer Leverkusen, second in the unpredictable Group C, host Hapoel Beer-Sheva who are last but still in contention.