UEFA: Europa League Round of 32 preview
Greek side Aris Thessaloniki and English adversaries Manchester City have already got the UEFA Europa League Round of 32 ball rolling after playing out a dull goalless stalemate on Tuesday night. Now attention turns to the rest of the round and Stoppage Time – International Football Blog previews the remaining ties.
There are ten previous winners of the UEFA Cup/Europa League competing in this season’s competition. The most successful of these former winners is Liverpool FC, the three-time winners will be facing a tricky tie against Czech side Sparta Prague. The Reds only have this competition left to play for as a Premier League challenge has proved beyond them this season and the club is already knocked out of both domestic cups. The most recent winners remaining in the tournament are Zenit Saint Petersburg who will be favourites in their last 32 encounter against Swiss side Young Boys Berne especially as the Russian side were the only team in the group stages to win all six of their group games. Sevilla FC, back-to-back winners in 2006 and 2007, welcome another former winner in FC Porto who are running away with their domestic title and who may be a good outside bet to win this trophy for a second time.
There is another head-to-head between two past winners in the shape of Dutch giants Ajax Amsterdam and Belgian side RSC Anderlecht who have both seen better days in European competition and would each relish another tilt at a European trophy. Ajax’s compatriots PSV Eindhoven have a difficult tie against French Ligue 1 leaders Lille OSC who have gained plenty of experience in this tournament in recent years and have expectations of progressing beyond the last eight which they achieved last season. Bayer 04 Leverkusen, champions in 1988, play against ambitious Ukrainian side Metalist Kharkiv, 2005 winners CSKA Moscow travel to Greece to face the other team from the second city, namely PAOK Thessaloniki. SSC Napoli, who won the cup for the one and only time in the days of Diego Maradona in 1989, will fight it out against Spanish side Villarreal CF. With both teams going well in their respective leagues will either risk playing a weakened side in order to rest players for the weekend?
In the other fixtures two recent losing finalists face off in the form of Glasgow Rangers (runners-up to Zenit in 2008) and Sporting Clube do Portugal (runners-up to CSKA Moscow in 2005) with the former in the midst of a tight fixture schedule caused by a mixture of bad weather and continued progress in all competitions so the latter could have a slight advantage in terms of fitness ahead of Thursday’s first leg in Scotland. Sporting’s neighbours Benfica SL, who haven’t won a European trophy since winning back-to-back European Cups with Eusebio in the 1960s, face off against a VfB Stuttgart side who are still experiencing difficulties this season in the Bundesliga lying in 17th place and in danger of relegation.
There is also a significant representation of clubs from Eastern Europe still in the tournament with the likes of Lech Poznań (v Braga), Dynamo Kyiv (v Beşiktaş), Spartak Moscow (v FC Basel), Rubin Kazan (v FC Twente) and BATE Borisov (v Paris Saint Germain) hoping to join the likes of CSKA Moscow, Zenit Saint Petersburg and Shakhtar Donetsk as winners of the event.