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Spain top Europa as Raul loses out

PARIS, France, April 6 – Three Spanish clubs showed the quality of La Liga extends beyond Barcelona and Real Madrid by cantering into the semi-finals of the Europa League on Thursday, where they were joined by Sporting Lisbon to complete an all-Iberian quartet.

Spanish legend Raul may have won honours in his Real Madrid days – including a trio of Champions League titles – but he was unable to keep Germany’s Schalke on the route to Europa League glory despite a goal at Athletic Bilbao.

The veteran striker’s best efforts could not prevent the conquerors of Manchester United reaching the semi-finals following a 2-2 second leg draw at the San Mames stadium, enough to send the Basque side through 6-4 on aggregate after their 4-2 success in Germany.

Raul scored in both games but the damage had been done for the Royal Blues in the home leg and although Klaas-Jan Huntelaar put the visitors ahead early on with a low shot past Gorka Iraizoz a superlative strike by Ibai Gomez ensured that the Germans still had a mountain to climb.

A 20-metre effort shortly after the restart from Raul gave the visitors, winners of the Europa League’s forerunner the UEFA Cup in 1997, renewed though brief hope.

But those hopes were dashed again just three minutes later when Iker Muniain found Markel Susaeta and he drove home past Lars Unnerstall in the Schalke goal to set up a tie with Sporting Lisbon, who drew 1-1 at Metalist Kharkhiv of Ukraine as the Portuguese advanced 3-2 on aggregate.

Ricky Van Wolfswinkel headed in for the visitors just moments before the break before Argentinian striker Jonathan Cristaldo levelled for the Ukrainians.

Just as Bilbao ended Schalke’s dreams, so 2010 winners Atletico Madrid provided further grief to German fans in knocking out Hanover.

Atletico already held a 2-1 lead from the first game in Madrid and produced an identical scoreline in the return.

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The Spaniards gave themselves breathing space as Adrian Lopez put them ahead after the interval after twisting and turning past three defenders before slotting home.

Mame Diouf slid home the equaliser with nine minutes remaining but Colombian hitman Radamel Falcao – who won the tournament last year with Porto – drilled in the clincher for a 4-2 aggregate success in the dying minutes.

Valencia added to Spanish delight by handing out a 4-0 drubbing to Dutch side AZ Alkmaar to cast off the memory of a 2-1 first-leg reverse.

Dutch resistance at the Mestalla Stadium lasted for barely quarter of an hour as Adil Rami made it 1-0 and then added a second within two minutes before Jordi Alba made it three on 56 minutes.

Pablo Hernandez completed the rout in the 80th minute for the two-time Champions League finalists who won the 2004 UEFA Cup under Rafael Benitez and who now take on Atletico.

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