Tottenham manager Andre Villas-Boas believes the Europa League will be given the respect it deserves when his side face Lyon in the last 32 of the competition.
Villas-Boas, who lifted the trophy in his first season in charge at Porto in 2011, thinks the quality on display in the second-tier competition should not be underestimated after today’s last-32 draw in Nyon threw up some tough fixtures.
While reigning European champions Chelsea will face Sparta Prague in the knockout stages and Newcastle have been paired with Metalist Kharkiv, Liverpool’s game with Russian champions Zenit St Petersburg is another mouthwatering tie worthy of the Champions League, according to the Portuguese.
“Lyon is a tremendous tie for us in the sense that it gives this country, along with the Liverpool game, the chance to see wonderful Europa League fixtures being played,” Villas-Boas told reporters.
“Zenit-Liverpool and Tottenham-Lyon should both be considered like Champions League fixtures so I think this is something important for the competition, for how it’s seen in this country.
“The fact that we play Lyon, who are used to being in the Champions League and used to winning trophies, it’s an important reference for us.
“If we want to set our targets for Champions League qualification, this is the kind of team we will face, teams with a winning mentality, full of quality players.
“In that sense I think it’s excellent for the publicity of the competition in this country.”
If Spurs beat Lyon over the two legs, the first of which will be played at White Hart Lane on February 14, they could set up a last-16 clash with Inter Milan if the Serie A side can beat Romania’s Cluj.
That would evoke memories of the Champions League tie between the sides in October 2010, when Gareth Bale scored a hat-trick at the San Siro after Inter had raced into a 4-0 lead.
Chelsea, who became the first holders not to reach the knockout stages of the Champions League, will start their bid to become only the fourth club after Juventus, Ajax and Bayern Munich to win all of the major European trophies as they bid to usurp defending champions Atletico Madrid.
The Blues avoided a rematch with Atletico, who handed them a 4-1 drubbing in the Super Cup back in August, and as a seeded team will start their Europa League campaign in Prague.
If they can beat Sparta, Chelsea will play either Ajax or Steaua Bucharest in the last 16.
Atletico drew Russian side Rubin Kazan as they bid to defend the title they won with a comprehensive 3-0 defeat of Athletic Bilbao in last year’s all-Spanish final.
Liverpool travel to Zenit in the first leg to face a Russian side who hit the headlines this week when their largest supporters group, Landscrona, caused widespread outrage by posting an open letter on their website that outlined their preferred criteria for future signings to exclude sexual minorities and non-Europeans.
For Newcastle boss Alan Pardew, the club’s game in Ukraine will be a trip into the dark after they were paired with little-known Metalist Kharkiv.
Asked what he knew about their opponents, Pardew said: “Not much, really. I do know it’s a long journey, I’ve had a look at that, and they won their group, so it’s a tough agenda for us.”
Elsewhere, Champions League dropouts BATE Borisov face Turkey’s Fenerbahce, while Spain’s Levante take on Olympiacos and Dynamo Kyiv take on Ligue 1’s Bordeaux.
Dutch champions Ajax host Steaua Bucharest while Germany’s Stuttgart host Genk and Bayer Leverkusen play Benfica.
Borussia Monchengladbach face Lazio while Swiss champions Basle play Dnipro of the Ukraine, Russia’s Anzhi play Hannover and Napoli take on Viktoria Plzen.