Holders Atletico frozen out of Europa League party

Paris: Atletico Madrid`s dreams of defending their Europa League title died on a snowy pitch in western Germany on Thursday, as they crashed out of the competition following a 1-1 draw at Bayer Leverkusen.

Atletico, who defeated Fulham in last season`s final in May, had to better Aris Salonika`s result at home to Rosenborg to progress from Group B and their hopes were ultimately dashed by a 2-0 win for the Greek side.

Nevertheless, Atletico took to the pitch at the BayArena knowing that only victory would give them any chance of reaching the last 32.

A snow-splattered playing surface, necessitating a bright pink ball, made for a sloppy game but it was the hosts who went ahead when Patrick Helmes drove home after racing onto a flick-on in the 69th minute.

The visitors responded quickly, Fran Merida placing the ball inside the left-hand post barely three minutes later, but Aris`s triumph at home to the group`s bottom side rendered Atletico`s result redundant.

French league leaders Lille booked their place in the knockout phase with a 3-0 win at home to qualification rivals Ghent amid similarly chilly conditions in northern France.

Needing to win to go through behind Sporting Lisbon in Group C, Lille took the lead in the 30th minute when Ludovic Obraniak seized on a loose back-pass before rounding the goalkeeper and tapping home.

More effective pressing of the opposition defence allowed Pierre-Alain Frau to squeeze home Lille`s second in the second half, before club top scorer Moussa Sow rounded off victory in the 89th minute.

In Group A, Manchester City made sure of top spot by drawing 1-1 with Juventus in Turin.

Niccolo Giannetti, on his first start for the club at the age of 19, prodded Juve in front two minutes prior to the break, before Brazilian striker Jo levelled with a tidy finish 13 minutes from time.

It meant that the Italian giants, who had already been eliminated, ended the group phase with six draws from six matches -- only the second team to do so in a UEFA competition after AEK Athens in the 2002-03 Champions League.

Polish side Lech Poznan, who went through with City, signed off their group campaign with a 1-0 win at Red Bull Salzburg.

AEK missed out on a place in the knockout rounds after losing 3-0 at home to Group G winners Zenit Saint Petersburg, with Ismael Blanco missing a first-half penalty for the hosts shortly before Aleksandr Bukharov put Zenit ahead.

A draw would have taken AEK into Friday`s draw for the last 32, but their defeat allowed Anderlecht to move above them into the second qualifying berth thanks to a 2-0 victory over Hajduk Split.

Bureau Report

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