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Europa League knockout play-off: AC Milan, Sporting CP & Qarabag impress in first legs

Ruben Loftus-Cheek's brace has all but put AC Milan into the last 16

AC Milan were the big winners as the first Europa League knockout round got underway on Thursday night, opening up a 3-0 aggregate lead over in-form French side Rennes at San Siro.

Rennes came into the first leg tie off the back of five successive wins in Ligue 1, yet they proved no match for Milan and English midfielder Ruben Loftus-Cheek.

The former Chelsea star opened the scoring after 32 minutes and doubled both his personal tally and his team’s advantage almost immediately after half-time. Rafael Leao then put the result on the night – and possibly the tie as a whole – beyond doubt with Milan’s third goal only a few minutes later.

The seven-time European champions have one foot firmly in the last 16 and Rennes have a mountain to climb in the return leg next week if they are to change that.

Roma didn’t have the same luck, held by Feyenoord in Rotterdam. Igor Paixao gave the Dutch side the lead at De Kuip in first half stoppage time, with Romelu Lukaku’s latest Europa League goal ensuring the game finished level. Roma at least arguably have the edge heading to Italy for the second leg.

Shakhtar Donetsk twice hit back in their ‘home’ leg against Marseille on neutral soil in northern Germany. The game finished 2-2 but the Ukrainians showed mettle to cancel out both Pierre-Emerick Aubameyang’s 64th minute opener and then Iliman Ndiaye’s would-be 90th minute winner.

Galatasaray had a player sent off in their 3-2 home victory over Sparta Prague. Dries Mertens put the Turkish side 2-1 ahead just moments before Victor Nelsson was dismissed, immediately followed by Jan Kuchta’s Sparta equaliser. The teams were evened back up when Matej Rynes saw red for the Czechs with ten minutes to go, leaving Mauro Icardi to win it for Gala in stoppage time.

Ruben Amorim’s Sporting CP will fancy their chances of preserving a 3-1 aggregate lead at home, having beaten Young Boys away in Switzerland in leg one of their tie. Ex-Coventry City striker Viktor Gyokeres was on the score-sheet for the Portuguese, as was Goncalo Inacio, linked with a number of top clubs, including Liverpool, Manchester United and Arsenal.

Benfica were Lisbon’s other club in victorious Europa League action, taking a 2-1 win from their clash with Toulouse at the Estadio da Luz. The day after celebrating his 36th birthday, two Angel Di Maria penalties – the second in the 98th minute of the match, secured the aggregate advantage.

Azerbaijan’s Qarabag have never been as far as the last 16 in any European competition, but stand an incredible chance of changing that this season thanks to a 4-2 first leg win away from home over Braga. After the Portuguese side had bought it back to 1-1 by half-time, Qarabag scored three unanswered goals in the first 24 minutes of the second half to make the difference. Joao Moutinho’s stoppage time penalty at least gives Braga a glimmer of hope to turn it round.

The only stalemate of the night was the goal-less draw between Lens and Freiburg in north east France. Lens dominated possession but failed to put a single one of their 12 attempts on target. Freiburg tested Brice Samba in the home goal four times without finding a way past.