Mixed night for La Liga sides
There was mixed news for Spain's Europa League contingent on Thursday, with reigning champions Atletico Madrid beating Viktoria Plzen 1-0 at home but crisis club Athletic Bilbao slipping to a 1-3 defeat at Sparta Prague and new boys Levante losing 1-2 at Hannover 96.
Athletic were again a shadow of the side that thrilled neutrals on the way to reaching last season's final, going three goals down via a Tomas Zapotocny 20-yarder, an Aritz Aduriz own goal and a Josef Husbauer penalty, before Oscar de Marcos slotted in a last-minute consolation.
Both the build-up to the game and post-match press conference were dominated by the leaking of an audio recording of Athletic coach Marcelo Bielsa criticising his players after last season's Copa del Rey final defeat. The Argentine said afterwards that his teams' "true problem is sporting", but complained of a whispering campaign aimed at undermining his position being carried out by some inside the Bilbao club.
"This practice happens very frequently," Bielsa said. "We are using journalists to say things that we think and we do not want to say and be responsible for saying. This time, instead of talking to a journalist, the audio was given."
Holders Atletico Madrid beat Viktoria Plzen 1-0 at the Estadio Vicente Calderon to bring their record-breaking run of consecutive European victories to 15. Coach Diego Simeone gave a run out to many of his squad players, and they left it late until Uruguayan winger Cebolla Rodriguez's stunning 93rd-minute 25-yard half-volley broke the Czech side's spirited resistance.
"I like that the team won, above all with the presence of players like Domingo Cisma, Jorge Pulido, Sergio Asenjo, Kader and Emre, who have played less minutes," Simeone said. "I also like that we can be competitive on two fronts. We do not worry about statistics. Qualifying for the next round is our objective."
Levante's first ever European campaign lost its momentum with Juan Iganacio Martinez's under-strength side losing 1-2 at Hannover 96, who played most of the game with ten men. After Karim Haggui was red-carded after just nine minutes, Levante took the lead through a Michel penalty, but the Bundesliga side levelled via another spot-kick from Szabolcs Huszti and took the three points with Didier Ya Konan's close range strike.
"We started well but then - call it experience or that we are in Europe - we paid too dearly for our errors," Martinez said. "You do not expect, so quickly, to be at 1-2. Not to look for excuses, or take away from Hannover, but Levante deserved a better result."