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Milan in control of Europa League layoff

europa league play off first leg ac milan v stade rennes
AC Milan's Rafael Leao celebrates scoring their third goal with Theo Hernandez

Ruben Loftus-Cheek scored two headers and Rafael Leao added a third as AC Milan secured an emphatic 3-0 home win over French side Stade Rennais in the first leg of their Europa League playoff tie on Thursday.

Milan, who dropped into the Europa League after finishing third in their Champions League group, might have posted an even more convincing victory had it not been for desperate defending but will still take a handy lead into next week’s second leg.

There was surprise away win for Azerbaijan’s Qarabag as they romped to a 4-2 triumph at Sporting Braga in Portugal to give themselves every chance of reaching the round of 16.

In the other late kickoff games, veteran Argentine forward Angel di Maria converted two penalties as Benfica edged French strugglers Toulouse 2-1 and Racing Lens’ home clash with Germany’s Freiburg ended goalless.

Loftus-Cheek guided Alessandro Florenzi’s cross into the net for Milan’s 32nd-minute opener and reacted quickest two minutes into the second half with a diving header after the French club’s veteran goalkeeper Steve Mandanda parried away a shot.

Leao played a skilful one-two with Theo Hernandez to make it 3-0 in the 52nd minute as Milan dominated the clash at San Siro.

In Braga, the home side gave away a penalty which Marko Jankovic tucked away for Qarabag in the 21st minute after Victor Gomez had fouled Elvin Jafarguliyev, but they were level before halftime when Simon Banza put the ball into an empty net.

VAR checks helped the Azeri club get back in front in the 54th minute as Abdellah Zoubir was confirmed onside after scoring from deflected free kick and Juninho struck in the 65th minute after initially being flagged offside.

Zoubir added Qarabag’s fourth after a swift counter-attack before Braga pulled one back thanks to veteran Joao Moutinho’s stoppage-time penalty but they are still up against it in next week’s clash in Baku.

Benfica went ahead with a 68th-minute penalty from Di Maria, awarded after a VAR review, but it was a lead that lasted seven minutes before Mikkel Desler volleyed in the equaliser for Toulouse.

A studs-up challenge by Christian Mawissa brought another penalty to Benfica and the Toulouse defender was sent off before Di Maria scored from the spot again eight minutes into stoppage time.

Earlier on Thursday, Sporting Lisbon won 3-1 at Young Boys Berne and Mauro Icardi scored a stoppage-time winner for Galatasaray as they edged Sparta Prague 3-2 in Istanbul.

Shakhtar Donetsk twice came from behind in a 2-2 draw with Olympique de Marseille in neutral Hamburg while AS Roma will be favourites in the return leg against Feyenoord after holding the Dutch champions 1-1 in Rotterdam.

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