Five Europa League ties you should keep far more than one eye on
There's plenty of interesting games beyond the ones involving Premier League sides14:17 Thursday 18 February 2016, 14:17 18 Feb 2016
Manchester United, Liverpool and Tottenham's fates might garner more attention in this round of the Europa League, but their fixtures are only a small portion of the highlights on offer.
A number of Europe's most well-known sides are going to head-to-head in intriguing ties and they will probably be worth watching even more than matches involving Premier League sides because teams from the continent tend to take the tournament more seriously.
Shakhtar v Schalke
The Ukrainians are Champions League regulars and although they only won once in this season's group stages, that was due to the fact that they were placed in the same group as Real Madrid and Paris Saint-Germain.
Shakhtar did do enough to finish third in that Champions League group however to secure a Europa League knockout place.
They face a Schalke side sitting fifth in the Bundesliga. Previously, a regular sight in the Champions League, they still have the likes of Klaas Jan Huntelaar in their squad, supplemented by young stars like Leon Goretzka and Max Meyer. Liverpool's upcoming summer arrival Joel Matip is also part of their defence.
Sporting Lisbon v Bayer Leverkusen
Sporting could win their first Portuguese title since 2002 if they can hold their nerve at the top of the league this season.
Like Shakhtar and Schalke, they also have players worth keeping an eye on like Portugal defensive midfielder William Carvalho, who is often linked with Arsenal and Manchester United, while Algerian forward Islam Slimani has plundered 22 goals in all competitions already this season.
Bayer are also picking up form. Now up to third in the German top flight, Roger Schmidt's side are unbeaten since early December in the league and also drew with Barcelona at home in the Champions League group stages, having lost narrowly at the Nou Camp earlier in the group.
And they have one of the most in-form strikers in Europe with ex-Manchester United forward Chicharito Hernandez having also scored 22 times across all competitions.
Marseille v Athletic Bilbao
Steven Fletcher's signing by Marseille from Sunderland was an interesting one. Struggling in the the obscure midtable of Ligue 1, they are still a giant of European football at least by name.
Belgian striker Michy Batshuayi is also worth keeping an eye on, given the comparisons with compatriot Romelu Lukaku and the 12 league goals he has in 2015-16.
Meanwhile, Athletic are having a solid season in La Liga, sitting seventh.
A number of their players catch the eye, namely attacking midfielder Iker Muniain, veteran striker Aritz Aduriz, who has 25 goals in all competitions and sought-after centre-back Aymeric Laporte.
Borussia Dortmund v FC Porto
Dortmund have found some of their mojo again and are having an outstanding season.
Unfortunately with Bayern Munich in existence, it means Thomas Tuchel's side have to settle for being far and away the second best side in Germany.
They'll be back in the Champions League next season, but they will have ambitions to win a European trophy this season and their talent goes without saying... Mats Hummels, Ilkay Gundogan, Henrikh Mkhitaryan, Shinji Kagawa and of course the twin totems Pierre Emerick Aubameyang and Marco Reus.
And their clash against FC Porto should be a cracker because like Dortmund, the Portuguese side are a bona fide giant of continental football - at least historically.
Their league campaign has not gone swimmingly and they sacked previous manager Julen Lopetegui last month, but this is still a squad boasting winger Yacine Brahimi and up-and-coming talent like Portugal international midfielder Ruben Neves.
Villarreal v Napoli
For a tiny club, Villarreal continue to punch above their flyweight. With an eight point gap back to fifth in this season's La Liga, the Yellow Submarine look odds on to dive back into next season's Champions League.
Napoli will likely be back in Europe's elite competition in 2015-16. They might have narrowly lost to Juventus in Serie A last weekend but Maurizio Sarri's Neapolitans are still well in the hunt for a first Scudetto since the Diego Maradona days.
His fellow Argentine Gonzalo Higuain has arguably been the in-form striker in Europe this season with nearly 30 goals in the campaign, while he is ably assisted by a supporting cast including Marek Hamsik, Jose Callejon and Lorenzo Insigne.
The very best bits delivered every weekSubscribe now