Of the two biggest victories in the last-16 first-leg ties, few expected Standard Liege to record one of them.
Europe offers Witsel the chance to redeem himself
Of the two biggest victories in the last-16 first-leg ties, few expected Standard Liege to record one of them. Following last month's departure of Laszlo Boloni, the former Al Jazira coach, this was a team in turmoil. Struggling domestically and without an away win in six European games, it did not augur well for Liege against a Panathinaikos side who had beaten Roma, the Italian giants, home and away in the previous round.
But an impressive 3-1 win in Greece last week has left the Belgians with one foot in the quarter-finals. Axel Witsel was among the scorers in Athens. One of his country's brightest talents and the Jupiler League's best player in 2008 when he was just 19. But two tackles and two red cards in two games against arch-rivals Anderlecht have besmirched his character. A challenge on Marcin Wasilewski last August was widely condemned as it left the Polish defender with a horrifically broken leg.
Witsel was banned for 11 games, reduced to eight on appeal, and as death threats followed, he protested his innocence. "I'm not a bad person," he pleaded. But in January, he saw red again for another nasty foul on Roland Juhasz. Like Paul Scholes at Manchester United, it may just be that his tackles are mis-timed rather than malicious. But Witsel has to be careful that his reputation does not centre on what he does not do well, rather than what he does. At 21, he has time to learn his lesson and develop into a world-class player.
His current influence in the Liege midfield will be even more noticeable in the absence of the highly rated Liege captain Steven Defour. After only returning in January following a four-month absence with a broken bone in a foot, he suffered a muscle tear against Panathinaikos. Defour moaned: "This season has been a disaster." But it could still finish on a happier note for himself and Witsel if they lift the Europa League.