- Associated Press - Wednesday, March 19, 2014

Flying high in the Italian league, Juventus and Napoli aren’t in such great positions in the Europa League going into the second legs of their last-16 matches on Thursday.

Juventus, which is top of Serie A and arguably the biggest name left in Europe’s second-tier competition, was held 1-1 at home by Fiorentina in the first leg while Napoli has to overturn a 1-0 deficit to Porto.

Benfica, Lyon, Valencia and Real Betis claimed convincing first-leg wins and will be confident of advancing to the quarterfinals.

Here are five things to know about Thursday’s games in the Europa League:

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MARIO AND MERKEL

Fiorentina striker Mario Gomez has been at the center of attention after scoring a late equalizer in a 1-1 first-leg draw with domestic rival Juventus.

The Germany forward also notched his first Serie A goal after missing five months with a left knee injury in a 3-1 win over Chievo Verona on Sunday.

Then, on Monday, new Italian Premier Matteo Renzi, a Florentine and avowed Fiorentina fan, presented an autographed Gomez shirt to German Chancellor Angela Merkel at a meeting in Berlin.

Gomez will again anchor Fiorentina’s attack in Thursday’s return leg.

Juventus, meanwhile, will welcome the return of Carlos Tevez, Serie A’s top scorer, after a minor injury. In Juve’s defense, center back Andrea Barzagli has been ruled out for three weeks with an injured left calf.

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JESUS VS. SHERWOOD

Ding, ding - Round 2.

Benfica coach Jorge Jesus and Tottenham manager Tim Sherwood were engaged in a touchline spat during their sides’ first leg at White Hart Lane - and it clearly left a nasty taste in Sherwood’s mouth.

After Benfica scored its third goal in a 3-1 win, Jesus - one of the most volatile characters in European football - turned to Sherwood and held up three fingers in a goading celebration. Sherwood squared up to his counterpart and refused to shake hands after the final whistle.

“I thought his team were very good, got a lot of class,” Sherwood said. “It’s a pity he doesn’t.”

Sherwood’s mood hardly improved on Sunday when Spurs lost 1-0 at home to fierce rival Arsenal, a third defeat in eight days that virtually knocked his team out of contention for a top-four finish and a place in next season’s Champions League.

Benfica is the big favorite to advance, having not lost any of its 16 home matches in the Europa League since the competition was rebranded in 2009.

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BETIS EYES SEVILLA LINING

With relegation looking very likely, Real Betis would at least feel some satisfaction from this season if it holds on to eliminate Sevilla from the Europa League.

Betis hosts its crosstown rival holding a 2-0 advantage following the first leg in a passionate derby that had lost some of its edge over recent seasons.

Betis‘ surprise victory away to open the two-legged series comes with the team languishing in last place in the Spanish league - nine points from safety - but on its best run of the season after going five games unbeaten in all competitions.

Sevilla, meanwhile, rebounded from last week’s loss by thrashing Valladolid 4-1 in league play at the weekend.

“This result will motivate everybody,” Sevilla coach Unai Emery said. “Thursday presents us with a challenge - it will be the most important match of the season.”

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LEAGUE STRUGGLE, CUP DOUBLE?

With a Champions League place slipping further away as the weeks go by, Lyon’s sights are better off set on the cup competitions.

Lyon is in fifth place in the French league and eight points behind third-place Lille with only nine games to play. But coach Remi Garde’s side has been more consistent in the cups and is still on course for a French League Cup-Europa League double.

Lyon will take on Paris Saint-Germain in the League Cup final next month and looks certain to reach the last eight in Europe since it holds a comfortable 4-1 lead against Czech side Viktoria Plzen.

Still, winning silverware will be a test of Lyon’s young and inexperienced squad, with games coming thick and fast.

“We are better at controlling certain situations now,” captain Maxime Gonalons said. “I prefer playing every three days because we’re used to it and that’s what we prepare for. Physically, everything is fine, even if it does use up a lot of energy.”

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HISTORY WITH VALENCIA, LYON

Valencia joined Lyon in claiming a big win in the first leg, beating Ludogorets Razgrad 3-0 away despite playing with 10 men for more than an hour in Bulgaria.

No team has overturned a three-goal deficit from the first leg since the advent of the Europa League.

In other matches, AZ Alkmaar leads Anzhi Makhachkala 1-0 and Salzburg hosts Basel with the score at 0-0.

Copyright © 2016 The Washington Times, LLC.

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