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Europa League Preview: Round of 32

Tuesday, 16 February

Everton 2-1 Sporting CP

Thursday, 18 February

19:00 Villarreal – Wolfsburg (preview)
19:00 Standard Liege – Salzburg
19:00 Twente – Werder Bremen
19:00 Lille – Fenerbahce
19:00 Rubin Kazan – Hapoel Tel Aviv
19:00 Ajax – Juventus (preview)
19:00 Club Brugge – Valencia
21:05 Athletic Bilbao – Anderlecht
21:05 Copenhagen – Olympique de Marseille
21:05 Panathinaikos – Roma (preview)
21:05 Atletico Madrid – Galatasaray (preview to follow)
21:05 Fulham – Shakhtar Donetsk (preview to follow)
21:05 Liverpool – Unirea Urziceni (preview)
21:05Hamburg – PSV (preview)
21:05 Hertha Berlin – Benfica

Standard Liege – Salzburg

Though Standard Liege have qualified for the last 32 of the Europa League, this season cannot be considered an overwhelming success by the Belgian giants. A whopping 16 points behind domestic league leaders Anderlecht, who have two games in hand, their thoughts have already turned to simply securing a berth in Europe’s secondary competition next term.

Coach Laslo Bonoli was dismissed last week as a result of the club’s underperformance over the last six months or so, while Dominique D'Onofrio has been handed the task of guiding les Rouches until the end of the present campaign. A good run in Europe would not go amiss, but their domestic form remains critical.

Salzburg, meanwhile, have proven they are a side not to be messed with. Having progressed this far boasting a 100 per cent record in a group that included Villarreal and Lazio, the board have shown their faith in coach Huub Stevens by extending his present deal through to 2012. There can be little doubt that the Austrians, who are top of a three way battle for their domestic title, start this match as favourites.

Twente – Werder Bremen

Lying comfortably second in the Eredivisie at the present time, Twente are in a good position to upset German giants Werder Bremen, who travel to the Netherlands on Thursday for what is sure to be a close-fought encounter.

Steve McClaren’s side have enjoyed a good run of form of late, with only a 2-0 away defeat to Ajax sullying 2010 for the Tukkers thus far. Scoreless draws against Utrecht and Groningen have certainly allowed PSV to wriggle three points clear at the summit of their domestic table. Almost perfect at home domestically, in Europe they have not been so secure at De Grolsch Veste, recording one win, one draw and one defeat in the group stages.

Werder progressed through to this stage of the competition with somewhat more ease, dropping only two points en route to the last 32. Thomas Schaaf’s men were cup specialists last season, reaching the semi-finals of the UEFA Cup, and are sixth in the Bundesliga as things stand. Their knockout credentials will again come to the fore as they aim to defeat a Twente side who have not won a European tie after Christmas for three decades.

Lille – Fenerbahce

Prior to Christmas, Lille set an absolutely searing pace in Ligue 1, scoring three goals or more in eight consecutive domestic fixtures. Such brilliant form has faded slightly, though the weekend’s victory over lowly Boulogne-Sur-Mer hinted that better is perhaps just around the corner for Rudi Garcia’s high flying Dogues.

LOSC are reckoned to be one of the most attractive sides in France to watch, boasting a style that has been compared to the Spanish game. The northerners actually pitted themselves against Primera Division opposition in the form of Valencia in the group stages but were not quite good enough to match los Ches. However, Lille proved too good for Genoa.

Fenerbahce lost only three points when qualifying past Twente in Group H, slipping against their Dutch opponents on the very first matchday. Since then they have been powerful on the continent, winning their last five fixtures. Domestically they lie second in the Super Lig behind a powerful Galatasaray side. Injuries will hamper Fener in this game, with several players, including long-term absentee Ugur Boral, missing.

Rubin Kazan – Hapoel Tel Aviv

Russian outfit Rubin Kazan are just starting to emerge from hibernation as the dawn of the new RPL season comes around. There will certainly be rustiness in the bones of the Champions League drop-outs, who so sensationally upset Barcelona at Camp Nou last year.

A new season of course means new faces, and Rubin have acted to snap up the likes of Fatih Tekke and Ilie Cebanu during their close season. They have lost the talents of Alejandro Dominguez, ‘El Chori’, who chose to end his say in Russia to move to Spain, where he turns out for fellow Europa League outfit Valencia.

Hapoel Tel Aviv were the shock package of Europa League Group C, surprisingly accounting for Hamburg and Celtic as they danced their way into the last 32 of the competition. The Israeli club are currently second in their domestic league, 12 points behind a Maccabi Haifa side who have been close to flawless this season but two ahead over city rivals Maccabi. New signing Bojan Vrucina is ineligible for this competition.

Club Brugge – Valencia

The second of three Belgian clubs to have made it to the round of 32, Club Brugge start their two-legged affair with Valencia as big underdogs. Brugge beat Toulouse in France 1-0 on the final matchday of the group stages to book their place in the spring rounds of the competition, though they could only muster second in Group J behind Shakhtar Donetsk.

Next season the Champions League is likely to be the focus of Adrie Koster’s side. They are presently second in the Belgian First Division, though the Blauw-Zwart do trail leaders Anderlecht by seven points.

Valencia are also a side who hope to play with the elite next term, currently boasting third spot in La Primera Division. Unai Emery has at his disposal an exciting group of players, though he does have a number of injury worries going into this clash in Belgium. Bruno is the latest problem to his los Che’s side, spraining his ankle in the 1-1 draw against Sporting Gijon last weekend. David Navarro is another high profile absentee.

Athletic Bilbao – Anderlecht

Basque outfit Athletic Bilbao finished a comfortable second in Group L, though they were someway back of the pace set by Werder Bremen. Los Leones are also a side who have suffered from greatly contrasting form since the turn of the year, going unbeaten at home in league play but not winning at all on the road.

Fernando Llorente’s form in the Europa League has been unwavering though. The forward has notched an impressive six goals in just five appearances, making him the competition’s top scorer. But Anderlecht also have a player in good touch. Jonathan Legear has struck four times in the group stages and actually enjoys a better goals-to-minutes ratio than the Spaniard.

The Belgians are early drop-outs from the Champions League and are in a commanding position atop their domestic league, though they did suffer a shock 2-1 home loss to Sint-Truidense at the weekend. In addition, les Mauves et Blancs have won only twice in 11 matches away against Spanish opposition in continental competition.

Copenhagen – Olympique de Marseille

With the Danish season not due to start again until early March, Copenhagen are getting thrown in at the deep end against a Marseille side who have been going well in Ligue 1 of late. The Danes have played in mid-season competitions in sunnier climes over the last month in preparation for this date and are said to have performed in an encouraging manner.

Les Phoceens, on the other hand, have been enjoying a good run of competitive action, progressing through to the final of the Coupe de la Ligue in recent weeks. Didier Deschamps’ men have also stepped up their challenge in Le Championnat, dismissing both Valenciennes (5-1) and Monaco (2-1) over the last couple of weeks.

A big match on Sunday against fierce rivals Paris Saint-Germain may mean the French side are somewhat distracted from their duties on Thursday evening, especially as the squad is somewhat depleted because of injuries to Gabriel Heinze and Brandao.

Hertha Berlin – Benfica

Domestically the seasons of Hertha and Benfica could barely be more different, yet their paves cross in the Europa League twice over the course of the next week.

The Bundesliga outfit must have their main focus on survival in Germany’s top flight. Presently they are anchored to the foot of the league table, seven points from safety with just 12 matches of the season remaining. To say their situation is perilous is something of an understatement. Nevertheless, Thursday’s encounter will provide brief respite from their league situation.

Benfica, who marched through to the knockout phases after picking up 15 points from a possible 18, are Portuguese league leaders. With Porto not quite at their best this term, Os Gloriosos lead Braga by a solitary point, though the second placed side do have a game in hand. Boasting a free-scoring forward line of Oscar Cardozo and Javier Saviola, the Lisbon side will be hard to stop.