Chelsea, Spurs win, Liverpool loses in Europa League
After the ignominy of a premature demise from the Champions League as defending champion, Chelsea's quest to win the Europa League began by gaining a slender advantage at Sparta Prague on Thursday.
On another miserable night for striker Fernando Torres, who has scored once in 13 matches, it fell to substitute Oscar to clinch a 1-0 victory in the first leg of the last-32 match.
"We have to create more opportunities and the strikers will score more goals,'' Chelsea manager Rafa Benitez said. "(Torres') work rate today was really good and thanks to him the rest of the team, especially the second line of offensive players, they could create.''
But there was only gloom for the team Benitez won the Champions League title with in 2005.
Liverpool, the five-time European Cup champions, lost 2-0 at Zenit St. Petersburg to mirror its struggles in the Premier League in which it sits in ninth place.
High-flying Premier League rival Tottenham will take a 2-1 lead to Lyon next Thursday after Gareth Bale scored twice from free kicks, while Rodrigo Palacio's double gave Inter Milan a 2-0 lead over Cluj.
The teams in the strongest position to advance are Levante and Viktoria Plzen, who both won their first legs 3-0.
In the Czech capital, Chelsea's breakthrough came after Benitez replaced Juan Mata with Oscar.
And the Brazilian's first involvement in the match ended with a goal in the 82nd minute after playing a one-two with Eden Hazard.
Benitez is already looking ahead to the May final in Amsterdam.
"(The players) have to realize it's an opportunity to win a trophy,'' he said. "I'm sure if we can progress they will see the option.''
Winning the Europa League would restore some pride at Chelsea after it became the first Champions League winners to exit the competition in the group stage in December.
At home, Chelsea is out of the League Cup, facing an FA Cup fourth-round replay against third-tier club Brentford on Sunday, and barey holding onto third in the Premier League.
Tottenham is only a point behind Chelsea domestically, and also holds a one-goal advantage in Europe.
Bale fired Tottenham in front in first-half stoppage time directly from a 35-meter free kick in which the ball dipped over the defensive wall into the net.
Bale's exploits, however, were surpassed by the brilliance of Lyon's leveler.
From William Gallas' headed clearance, Samuel Umtiti unleashed a first-time half-volley from the edge of the penalty area that swerved past goalkeeper Brad Friedel into the top corner.
But another free kick at the end of the second half was expertly dispatched by Bale again into the net.
While Tottenham's priority is securing one of the four Champions League places in the Premier League, Liverpool's domestic struggles have made a European run a priority.
A virtually full-strength team conceded two goals in two minutes in Moscow from the 70th with Hulk and Sergei Semak scoring.
Another Russian team, Rubin Kazan, won by the same score line to stun defending champion Atletico Madrid. Gokdeniz Karadeniz and Pablo Orbaiz clinched the away win.
Bayer Leverkusen conceded at home for the first time in Europe this season, with Oscar Cardozo's second-half strike giving Benfica a 1-0 win in Germany.
Another German side, Hannover, was beaten 3-1 by Anzhi Makhachkala after throwing away the lead after goals from Samuel Eto'o, Odil Ahmedov and Mbark Boussoufa.
The highest scoring game of the night was Borussia Monchengladbach's 3-3 draw against Lazio with three penalties awarded. Only the first and third were scored - by Martin Stranzl and Thorben Marx - with Stranzl missing his second.
In Italy, second-half-goals from Palacio give Inter a two-goal cushion to take to Transylvania, while Napoli was stunned by Viktoria Plzen. Vladimar Darida, Stanislav Tecl and Frantisek Rajtoral gave the Czech side a 3-0 win.
Levante beat Olympiakos by the same score to take a giant stride toward the last 16 after having lost five of its past six domestic matches in Spain. Pedro Rios, Jose Barkero and Obafemi Martins scored for Levante.
In Belarus, Fenerbahce held on for a 0-0 draw at BATE Borisov despite playing with 10 men from the third minute after Raul Meireles was sent off for hacking Alexander Helb from behind. It was also scoreless between Newcastle and Metalist Kharkiv after Papiss Cisse had two goals for the English hosts disallowed for offside.
There was also a draw in the Ukrainian capital where Dynamo Kiev was held 1-1 by Bordeaux after Lukman Haruna's opener for the hosts was canceled out by Ludovic Obraniak.
In other results on Valentine's Day, Valentin Stocker scored Basel's first in a 2-0 victory over Dnipro, Ajax beat Steaua Bucharest by the same score, and Genk drew 1-1 at Stuggart.