London: After a collective blow-out in the Champions League, England has a three-pronged attack on Europe's second tier competition with Chelsea, Tottenham Hotspur and Newcastle United all vying for Europa League success. The three Premier League sides were all kept apart in the draw for the last eight and head into Thursday's quarter-final first legs looking to earn back some of the country's European lustre.
European champions Chelsea host Russian outfit Rubin Kazan, London rivals Tottenham welcome Swiss side Basel and Newcastle travel to Benfica. Fenerbahce's clash with Lazio is the only quarter-final not to feature a Premier League club. For Chelsea, Thursday's match against Rubin is the start of a gruelling fixture pile-up that involves playing five matches in 13 days as they look to do battle in three competitions.
Defeat to Southampton in the Premier League on Saturday left them looking vulnerable in a three-way fight with Tottenham and Arsenal for the final two Champions League qualification spots. But victory over Manchester United in an FA Cup quarter-final replay 48 hours later set them up nicely for an end-of-season push for silverware.
"My priority is the top four and trying to win the next game, in the Europa League," Chelsea's persistently under-fire interim manager Rafa Benitez said after Monday's hard-fought 1-0 win. "We're in the semi-finals of the FA Cup, quarter-finals of the Europa League. It's a great season at the moment. It could be even better."
Chelsea start as overwhelming favourites but Rubin are no pushovers having knocked out holders Atletico Madrid and their La Liga rivals Levante in two previous rounds to reach a European quarter-final for the first time. The club from the Volga region, the last remaining Russian side in the competition, warmed up for the Chelsea clash with a 2-0 home win over Lokomotiv Moscow on Saturday, moving them into fourth place in the league table.
Tottenham, who like Chelsea are almost certainly prioritising their fight for a top-four finish in the Premier League, host Basel, the Swiss champions for the last three seasons. The Swiss have lost only two league matches since Murat Yakin, a former Switzerland defender, took over as coach at the end of October and are unbeaten domestically this year. They are the only reigning domestic champions still in the Europa League.
Tottenham Hotspur striker Jermain Defoe will miss up to three matches with a muscle injury, his manager Andre Villas-Boas said on Wednesday.
The England forward will sit out Thursday's Europa League quarter-final first leg at home to Basel and Sunday's Premier League clash with Everton and could also miss the return match with the Swiss side next week.
"Jermain has a muscle injury which is probably going to take him out of the next two games definitely and maybe Basel away," Villas-Boas told reporters.
They last reached the quarter-finals of a European competition in 2005/06 when Middlesbrough knocked them out of the then UEFA Cup. "We are extremely excited about this draw," said Yakin. "Tottenham Hotspur are a great team from a wonderful city. We have nothing to lose against them. We have earned the opportunity to play against teams like these. It's already a huge accomplishment to be in the last eight of the Europa League."
For Newcastle, the Europa League is a distraction from their domestic battle to avoid relegation with the club three points above the drop zone following a crushing 4-0 defeat to Manchester City on Saturday. Manager Alan Pardew, who was handed a remarkable eight-year contract at the start of the season, has promised fans that his side will put in an improved display in Lisbon.
"It's one of the great European adventures, trust me," Pardew said. "Their stadium is going to be rocking on Thursday night - and after our result they will be looking forward to us coming. "But we will certainly be better than we were on Saturday." Fenerbahce host Lazio with the Turkish side looking to improve on a dismal record against Italian teams, having lost 10 of 13 clashes to date.
Lazio are fifth in Serie A after their 2-1 win over Catania on Saturday but still have an outside chance of finishing third and a place in the Champions League next season. Coach Vladimir Petkovic, who speaks eight languages, said of Fenerbahce: "They are very good, especially at home. Turkish sides don't usually shine when they play away, however. "We have great respect for them but they are not unbeatable."