Europe: Europa League
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V. Boniface (90)
By Peter Weis@PeterVicey

18:45 European Kickoffs: Leverkusen and Frankfurt advance to European knockouts

Respective 1-0 victories in Baku and Helsinki ensured that both Bayer 04 Leverkusen and Eintracht Frankfurt will advance in their respective European club tournament competitions on Thursday evening. With two group-stage match-days remaining, the two German clubs are clear for 2024 European football. 
A late penalty at the Azersun Arena in Baku enabled Xabi Alonso's Leverkusen to clinch top spot in their 2023/24 Europa League group. While the German UEL representatives didn't play their most inspiring football during their trip to the Azerbaijani capital to face Qarabag FK, Victor Boniface's conversion from the spot in second-half injury time allowed the Rhineland guests to take a match in which they were slightly better than their opponents. Eintracht Frankfurt - playing in the UEFA Europa Conference League - are also through to the knockout stages of their competition thanks to a narrow 1-0 win.

Xabi opted to make six personnel rotations from the weekend win over Hoffenheim. Piero Hincapie took the place of the injured Edmond Tapsoba in central defense. Josip Stanisic, Robert Andrich, and Nathan Tella also started in place of Odilon Kossounou, Jeremie Frimpong, Exequiel Palacios, and Jonas Hofmann. Czech keeper Matej Kovar - making his fourth consecutive Europa League start - took over for Lukas Hradecky in goal once again. Xabi addressed Hradecky's error over the weekend in his pre-match comments and hinted that Kovar might make league start soon.

The visiting Germans were slow to warm up in the game. Though Alonso's Werkself maintained the lion's share of early possession, lack of passing accuracy in the final third meant that Germany's red company team didn't generate a truly dangerous opportunity until the 23rd minute. Hincapie forced a save out of former Leverkusen keeper Andrey Lunev with a fine header off an Alexandro Grimaldo corner. Apart from this opportunity, however, Leverkusen simply weren't able to locate their offensive rhythm during the opening 45.

Qarabag took advantage of Bayer passing errors, yet weren't able to do much with a series of counter attacks in the first-half. The general flow of proceedings, on both sides, continued after the restart. The Germans gradually built up better incursions into the penalty area of their hosts, but still found all of their final efforts blocked by the deep-seated Azerbaijani team before the ball could reach Lunev. Hofmann and Boniface managed to threaten slightly with a double chance in the 75th.

Boniface and Andrich saw later efforts blocked down the stretch. Leverkusen's Nigerian striker attempted the spectacular with an artistic overhead kick in the 86th that unfortunately went well wide of the target. Boniface again couldn't find the finish on a set-up from the subbed-on Jeremie Frimpong in the a few short minutes later. The Germans were finally gifted a chance to open the scoring in the first minute of second-half added time. Maksim Medvedev was adjudged to have handed a Grimaldo header in the box.

Boniface successfully converted the spot kick, finally registering the tally he had been seeking all evening. The three points secured ensure that the Bundesliga title contenders will finish in top spot in their group. The league-leaders remain undefeated in 15 competitive fixtures across all competitions this season. Boniface has now scored 11 goals in the league, cup, and European club tournament fixtures.

Elsewhere in Europe on Thursday evening, Eintracht Frankfurt were active in the Conference league with an 18:45 kickoff against HJK Helsinki. The RheinMain Adler emerged victorious from their trip to the Russo-Nordic portion of the Scandinavian Peninsula. A Fares Chaibi dream goal led Dino Toppmöller's side to a 1-0 win over their opponents. The win - combined with a 2-2 draw between Group G clubs PAOK Athens and Aberdeen - ensured that Eintracht have booked passage to the UECL knockouts.

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