BERLIN - The Europa League returns this week with some top-class action in the last-32 first legs as Serie A leaders Napoli host Bundesliga runners-up RB Leipzig while Borussia Dortmund face in-form Italians Atalanta.
With a number of big teams having dropped down from the Champions League into European football’s secondary tournament, the Europa League takes on a different look for the knock-out phase.
The allocation of a Champions League spot to the Europa League winner has certainly also added spice to the competition, as seen with Manchester United’s face-saving triumph last term, but Thursday-night football this time around may be seen as a hindrance by some teams.
Napoli are going for their first Serie A title since the days of Diego Maradona in 1990. They lead champions Juventus by one point heading into a crunch period and Leipzig will hope their minds are not completely on the Europa League.
“It is a knock-out tie so anything can happen,” Leipzig midfielder Diego Demme, whose father comes from southern Italy and reportedly named him after Maradona, told the Bild newspaper.
Leipzig are again second in the Bundesliga but with Bayern Munich all but champions already, the chance of silverware in the Europa League has become more attractive.
Demme missed their 2-0 win over Augsburg on Friday with a cold but is desperate to return.
“We want to enjoy it. My nose is still stuffed up but I wouldn’t miss this game for anything.”
Napoli coach Maurizio Sarri has captain Marek Hamsik and defender Raul Albiol possibly out with injuries and media reports say he plans to rest forward Dries Mertens, with rotation likely also in midfield and defence.
Dortmund are in a similar quandary to Napoli as they welcome Atalanta. Peter Stoeger’s side are third in the Bundesliga and facing a battle to secure Champions League football through their domestic league.
They may ultimately have to choose to prioritize either the German top-flight or the Europa League.
Group K winners Lazio visit Romania side Steaua Bucharest in poor form after a 4-1 defeat at Napoli at the weekend, their third straight loss in Serie A.
In contrast AC Milan coach Gennaro Gattuso is enjoying a gradual improvement since taking over in late November, but is wary of the away first leg at Bulgarian champions Ludogorets.
“We must prepare for the game carefully,” said Gattuso, who won two Champions League titles as a Milan midfielder. “Ludogorets players have more European experience than ours. It will be a very dangerous game.”
Arsenal face a tricky trip to Sweden’s Ostersund, who are managed by Englishman Graham Potter and have made the last 32 in their debut European season.
Spanish sides Atletico Madrid, Athletic Bilbao and Villarreal also have awkward away first legs at Copenhagen, Spartak Moscow and Olympique Lyon but Real Sociedad are at home to Salzburg.
There has already been one last-32 game first leg played on Tuesday when Red Star Belgrade and CSKA Moscow played out a goalless draw in the Serbian capital.
Other intriguing first legs on Thursday night include Nice against Lokomotiv Moscow, Celtic hosting Zenit St. Petersburg, Marseille taking on Braga, Partizan Belgrade welcoming Viktoria Plzen, Sporting Lisbon heading to Astana and AEK Athens welcoming Dynamo Kiev.
The second legs take place next week.