Europa League tie against Lyons will be dress rehearsal for Champions League, says Andre Villas-Boas
Andre Villas-Boas hardly knew whether to laugh or cry when his Tottenham Hotspur side was drawn with Lyons in the last 32 of the Europa League yesterday, describing the tie as both "tremendous" and "one of the worst you could get".
Spurs are desperate to return to the Champions League and so there is a thrill at the prospect of playing a team who recently won seven straight French titles. Villas-Boas agreed it would be a "Champions League dress rehearsal".
"This is the step we want to take towards the future, so in some ways it is a good draw for us regarding where we want to be in the future," Villas-Boas said. "But it is an extremely difficult draw for us, amongst one of the worst teams you could get."
Villas-Boas was also pleased that his Tottenham team have the "extremely difficult draw" with Lyons, who are coached by former Arsenal player Rémi Garde, in the next round because the quality and prestige of the tie ought to promote the competition in England.
"Lyons is tremendous in the sense it gives the opportunity for this country to see wonderful Europa League fixtures being played," said Villas-Boas, who also pointed out Liverpool's draw against Zenit St Petersburg. "Both of them can be considered like Champions League fixtures. This is something important for how the competition is seen in this country."
Lyons reached the Champions League semi-final as recently as 2010, with a long run in the competition coinciding with their seven consecutive French titles between 2002 and 2008.
"Lyons are used to being in Champions League and to winning trophies," Villas-Boas said, "so they are an important reference for us if we want to set our target to Champions League. They are the sort of team we will face, with a winning mentality, and with excellent players.
"You see how well they have been doing in the league this year. They have been knocked off first place by Paris Saint-Germain but they are rebuilding again."
Spurs bought goalkeeper Hugo Lloris from Lyons in the summer and Villas-Boas said he had not yet made the decision whether the France international would get to play against his former club. Brad Friedel has been in goal in Spurs' recent Europa League fixtures.
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 attempt 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 seek to defend the title they won with a comprehensive 3-0 defeat of Athletic Bilbao in last year's all-Spanish final in Bucharest.
Liverpool travel to St Petersburg for the first leg to face a Zenit team who hit the headlines this week when their largest supporters group, Landscrona, caused widespread outrage by declaring their preferred criteria for future signings excluded sexual minorities and non-Europeans.
For Newcastle manager 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, and they won their group, so it's a tough agenda for us.
"It's a tough draw in terms of travel; the opposition, I know very little about. I can't even comment on that until such time as we do some studying."
Elsewhere, Champions League dropouts BATE Borisov face Turkey's Fenerbahçe, while Spain's Levante take on Olympiakos and Dynamo Kiev are paired with Ligue 1's Bordeaux. Germany's Stuttgart host Genk and Bayer Leverkusen play Benfica.
Borussia Mönchengladbach face Lazio, while Swiss champions Basle play Dnipro of the Ukraine, Russia's Anzhi Makhachkala are against Hannover and Napoli take on Czech side Viktoria Plzen.
Europa League: Draw details
* Round of 32 draw (selected)
Zenit St Petersburg v Liverpool
Newcastle United v Metalist Kharkiv
Sparta Prague v Chelsea
Tottenham Hotspur v Lyons
First legs: 14 February; second legs: 21 Feb
Lowdown on English opponents:
Zenit St Petersburg Spent big in the summer to bring in Axel Witsel and Hulk but was not enough to guarantee Champions League progression. Beat Rangers to win this competition in 2008.
Metalist Kharkiv A trip to eastern Ukraine awaits Newcastle, against a multicultural side who reached the last eight last year, and beat Everton in 2007-08.
Sparta Prague Petr Cech faces his former employers, for whom Vaclav Kadlec, 20, will be one to watch, with four Europa League goals this season.
Lyons At last beginning to reach heights of domestic dominance of 2002-2008 once more. Led by the goals of Bafétimbi Gomis, only inferior goal difference is currently keeping them off the top of Ligue 1.
Round of 16 draw (selected)
Anzhi Makhachkala/Hannover v Newcastle United/Metalist Kharkiv
Tottenham Hotspur/Lyons v Internazionale/CFR Cluj
Basel/Dnipro v Zenit St Petersburg/Liverpool
Ajax/Steaua Bucharest v Sparta Prague/Chelsea
First legs: 7 March; second legs: 14 March
* Remaining dates 4 & 11 April: Quarter-finals
25 April & 2 May: Semi-finals
15 May: Final (Amsterdam)