RECAP: EUROPA LEAGUE ACTION
Jozy Altidore's assists helped put Alkmaar on the cusp of a quarterfinal berth while Jermaine Jones and Schalke were narrowly beaten at Twente thanks to a dubious referee decision.
FC Twente Enschede 1 - 0 FC Schalke 04
Schalke did all they needed to keep high-scoring Dutch title-chasers Twente off the scoreboard on Thursday, however a dubious penalty call early in the first-half left them facing an uphill climb to reach the final eight of the competition.
A largely defensive contest which saw a paltry combined total of three shots on goal mustered by both teams was ultimately decided moments past the hour mark when Scottish referee Craig Thompson committed a gaffe which is likely to save him the trouble of making any further international business trips for some time to come.
Luuk de Jong received a pass from teammate Ola John and sprung towards goal with Joel Matip hot on his trail. Before even crossing into the penalty area, the Twente player tripped over his own feet and hit the turf.
Perhaps having left his contact lenses sitting in the hotel on accident, Thompson not only chose to award a penalty, but also showed Matip a straight red for what he thought was impeding a clear goalscoring opportunity.
The Dutch forward did no fail to capitalize on the mistake, and fired the resulting spot kick to the upper left corner of goal, well out of the reach of the helpless Timo Hildebrand.
Even with one less player on the field, Schalke nevertheless pushed hard to cancel the gross miscarriage of justice, however their efforts were for naught, with Twente coming away with the win.
The loss means Schalke must shoot for the win in Thursday's return leg at the Veltins Arena, and be wary of allowing their opponents any potentially devastating away goals.
Beforehand, they return to their Bundesliga campaign, where they will host Hamburg on Sunday.
Standard Liege 2 - 2 Hannover 96
Steve Cherundolo and Hannover resiliently fought back from a halftime deficit on Thursday, giving themselves a slight edge to advance in their draw at old foes Standard Liege.
After 22 minutes, Hannover took the lead when Antonio Kanu fouled midfielder Konstantin Rausch in the box, allowing Lars Stindl to send the Germans ahead from the spot.
Five minutes later Standard equalized with a low 12-yard shot from Yoni Buyens, then went ahead at the half hour as Mohamed Tchite headed in a corner from Serge Gakpe.
As the teams had already twice played just months before in the group stage, perhaps Hannover's familiarity with their opponents was at play as they managed to pull even with an important second away-goal in the 56th minute.
Ivorian forward Didier Ya Konan played a fine through-ball to winter purchase Mame Biram Diouf, and the Senegalese international beat keeper Sinan Bolat with a fine shot to secure the draw.
The two away goals will likely prove crucial for the Reds, as either a scoreless or 1-1 draw in Thursday's return leg in Hannover will see them through, although any outright win will also be more than enough.
Beforehand, they pay a visit to Werder Bremen on Sunday afternoon in Bundesliga action.
AZ Alkmaar 2 - 0 Udinese
Jozy Altidore continued his strong run for AZ Alkmaar on Thursday, notching up a pair of assists to help them ease past a usually strong Udinese team.
AZ were on the front foot from nearly start to finish, however it took just over an hour for the scoreboard to reflect their dominance.
Altidore played a strong part in the opening goal, sending in a cross which took a slight deflection off of Udinese defender Giovanni Pasquale before finding the head of Maarten Martens, who put it away for the lead.
Six minutes before full time, Altidore again played provider, hitting substitute Erik Falkenburg on the run in the center of the area, with the former Dutch youth international beating Udinese keeper Samir Handanovic with a fine finish.
With a two-goal aggregate lead, AZ need simply to avoid a collapse in the return leg in Italy on Thursday. In the meantime, they will play what by all accounts should be a glorified warm-up on Sunday when they visit second-bottom De Graafschap in Eredivisie play.
Oguchi Onyewu is recovering from a knee injury and was not in uniform as Sporting pulled off a shocking 1-0 win over competition heavyweights Manchester City on Thursday.