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Spain relying on Celta to keep up Europa League success

LONDON: The UEFA Cup and Europa League trophies have virtually taken up permanent residence in Spain for the past 13 years. It’s down to Celta Vigo to continue the tradition.

The side from the northwest corner of Spain is the country’s only representative in the Europa League quarter-finals, which start on Thursday.

Celta have matched their best ever run in European competition, repeating their exploits from 2001 when a team containing Alexander Mostovoi, Valeri Karpin and Gustavo Lopez lost to Barcelona in the UEFA Cup quarter-finals. To go one better, Celta must beat Genk one of two Belgian clubs to get this far.

Since the 2003-04 season, Spain have won Europe’s second-tier competition eight times: Valencia (UEFA Cup in 2004), Sevilla (UEFA Cup in 2006 and ‘07, Europa League in 2014, ‘15 and ‘16) and Atletico Madrid (Europa League in 2010 and ‘12).

Celta have never won a major trophy in their 94-year history and are likely to have Swedish striker John Guidetti and Chilean midfielder Marcelo Diaz back for the game.

Both players have had knee injuries but practiced with the rest of the squad this week and are expected to be available.

Celta have lost two of their last three home games, including 2-0 to Eibar in La Liga on Sunday.

In a clash of two former winners, Dutch giants Ajax host German outfit Schalke 04 in the first leg in Amsterdam.

Both won the competition when it was called the UEFA Cup: Ajax in 1992 and Schalke in 1997.

Ajax reduced Feyenoord’s lead in the Eredivisie to a single point at the weekend as they mount a late charge for a record-extending 34th title.

Schalke striker Klaas Jan Huntelaar is likely to be watching from the bench on his return to the club where he made his breakthrough. Huntelaar has lost his starting place to Guido Burgstaller, signed during the recent transfer window when the 33-year-old striker was out with a knee injury.

Huntelaar’s contract with Schalke is running out and he told Dutch newspaper De Telegraaf this week that he will be leaving at the end of the season.

Turkey’s Besiktas will take on France’s Olympique Lyon but the visitors will be without injured Portugal international Ricardo Quaresma while Vincent Aboubakar — scorer of Cameroon’s winning goal in this year’s Africa Cup of Nations final — is suspended.

Lyon lurched to a disastrous 4-1 home defeat against Lorient at the weekend, ending any slim hope they had of snatching a top-three finish in France and the Europa League remains the last hope of winning a trophy this season for the seven-time French champions.

The Europa League has, meanwhile, taken on increased importance to Manchester United because the English team is struggling to qualify for the Champions League via a top-four finish in the Premier League.

And Henrikh Mkhitaryan says United cannot afford to underestimate Belgian league leaders Anderlecht as Jose Mourinho’s side attempt to join an elite group of European clubs.

Three times kings of Europe and Cup Winners’ Cup winners in 1991, United are chasing a first Europa League title that would see them become only the fifth team — after Ajax, Bayern Munich, Chelsea and Juventus — to win all three major UEFA trophies.

“It is one of my goals for this season — to win the Europa League,” said Mkhitaryan, who reached the same stage of the tournament with Borussia Dortmund a year ago. “I know it is not going to be easy, particularly at this stage of the competition as there are no easy opponents.”

The Armenian international scored in Sunday’s 3-0 win at Sunderland in the Premier League, but United face an uphill battle to catch Manchester City or Liverpool in the battle for a top-four finish.

The Red Devils dealt Anderlecht a crushing 10-0 defeat in the European Cup in 1956 — it remains the Belgian club’s heaviest continental defeat and United’s biggest win — but the Belgians, the 1983 champions, have won five of their last six European home games.

“Obviously we understand the importance of the tie with Anderlecht in the quarter-finals,” Mkhitaryan told United’s website.

“We know that we are going to have two very tough games and, of course, Anderlecht are not easy opponents. I know this because I have watched some of their games in Europe; they are playing very well and have very good players of high quality.”

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