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Europa League Preview: Groups D-F & J-L

Group D
Hertha – Sporting CP
Heerenveen – Ventspils

Sporting travel to Hertha having already secured their progress to the knock-out rounds of the Europa League via a first place finish in Group D. While the Portuguese powerhouse are safely in the pot for the recommencement of hostilities in 2010, the German capital side have yet to secure their place. Victory would push the Bundesliga club through, but they have bigger worries as they still remain rooted to the foot of their domestic table, boasting just five points in 16 games – a tally less than the seven they have accrued in just five European encounters.

It could be that Heerenveen and Ventspils are playing for little more than pride in the Netherlands on Wednesday, with the Latvian side already eliminated after having picked up just three points. They can, however, avoid bottom spot. To do so would involve fatally wounding the Dutch side, who need nothing less than a win to progress.

Group E

CSKA Sofia – Roma
Basel – Fulham

There is much to play for in Group E, with three of the four clubs still very much in the thick of the qualification battle. Roma are already through to the knockout stage, but their presence atop the standings is not secured. I Lupi have to travel to Bulgaria to face CSKA, knowing that a victory is required to claim top spot. Claudio Ranieri’s men were held 0-0 away to Sampdoria on Sunday, and a similar result on Wednesday may not be enough to top the standings.

Basel, meanwhile, will go to war with Roy Hodgson’s Fulham for the other place in the last 32. The Swiss outfit have enjoyed a terrific European campaign to date, defeating Roma on the opening matchday of the competition. Defeat against the Cottagers would see them eliminated, with the Premier League outfit eyeing a repeat of the 1-0 success they achieved in London back in October. Anything shy of a win for Fulham would knock them out.

Group F

Panathinaikos – Dinamo Bucharest
Galatasaray – Sturm Graz

The major issues are just about all tied up in Group F, though the fixture between Panathinaikos and Dinamo Bucharest in Athens could provide a thrilling climax to this pool. Boasting a three-point lead over their opponents, Pana would have to lose out to the Romanian outfit on head-to-head if they were to be eliminated. Their 1-0 win in Bucharest leaves them in a precarious position, as a two-goal success for their guests, or a one-goal victory involving both teams scoring, would see the Greek team ignominiously kicked-out at the last.

In Istanbul there will be no such drama or complicated calculations. Gala are already in the last 32, having impressed in the pool stages with four wins and a draw to their name to date. On the other hand, Sturm Graz have picked up only one point from their previous five games and start as second favourites against Frank Rijkaard’s strong side.

Group J

Club Brugge – Toulouse
Partizan – Shakhtar Donetsk

All eyes will be turning to Belgium with regards the action in Group J on Wednesday night. French side Toulouse need all three points if they are to make progress in the competition, doubtless ruing the late equaliser they allowed the Belgians on Matchday 2. Head coach of le Tefece, Alain Casanova, has elected not to field a strong squad in the Europa League this term, but may introduce more top stars in midweek. For their part, Brugge have acquired eight points from five games, including a good draw against Shakhtar Donetsk last time out.

If it’s likely to be tense in Belgium, things should be a little more sedate in Serbia, where Partizan go chasing their first points of the competition against a Shakhtar side who have been virtually flawless to date. The last winners of the UEFA Cup look in excellent touch, sweeping 14 goals into the net en route to four wins and a draw from five games. Progression to the knock-out rounds has been easy for Mircea Lucescu’s side.

Group K

Sparta Prague – Copenhagen
CFR Cluj – PSV Eindhoven

Wednesday evening’s encounter between Sparta Prague and Copenhagen is set to be a winner-takes-all thriller in the Czech Republic. The hosts may boast a better goal difference than their opponents, but they go into this game third by virtue of their 1-0 loss in Denmark back on Matchday 2. Victory is therefore imperative. Copenhagen’s games have tended to be tight affairs in the competition, with only eight goals scored in the five so far, so expect a tight, tense match rather than an all-action rollercoaster. A draw would do for the Danes, who mustered a 2-0 win over Cluj to reignite their challenge on Matchday 5.

Cluj are anchored to the foot of the group with only one win to their credit and four successive defeats in the competition at their backs. They close out a poor campaign against PSV, who have wandered through to the last 32 off the back of three wins and two draws. With first placed banked, they may choose to focus on their Eredivisie challenge, which sees them tackle Roda at the weekend.

Group L

Athletic Bilbao – Werder Bremen
Nacional – Austria Vienna

Group L’s convincing qualifiers will meet on Wednesday night for the right to march through in first place. Boasting an imperious record thus far, the Germans top the table, having recorded four wins and a draw in their opening five matches. Having convincingly defeat their hosts 3-1 on Matchday 2, Thomas Schaaf’s side would seem to hold all the cards, as a two-goal success for the Basques is the minimum they need if they are to claim first place. That defeat in Germany is the only loss Joaquin Caparros’ side have suffered, though a draw against Nacional may prove costly.

The Portuguese club are fighting a battle of their own to avoid bottom spot. Tackling Austria Vienna on Wednesday evening, the Madeira Islanders are doubtless aware that a low scoring draw will be enough for them to avoid the ignominy of languishing in the basement. Both sides have managed two points thus far, with a 1-1 draw between the sides in Vienna their previous scoreline.

Robin Bairner,