Football: What to look out for in the Europa League this week

Football: What to look out for in the Europa League this week
PHOTO: Reuters

PARIS - The first legs of the Europa League play-offs will be played on Thursday.

AFP Sports picks five things to look out for among the 22 ties in the final round before the group stage:

- Fresh from brushing aside Dutch side Vitesse Arnhem in the third qualifying round, their first victory in a European tie since 1981, Southampton face the Danish champions Midtjylland for a place in the group stage, with the first leg at St Mary's.

Ronald Koeman's side are bidding to join Tottenham Hotspur and Liverpool and make it three Premier League clubs in the group stage, but striker Shane Long knows they must do better than in their 3-0 home loss to Everton last weekend.

"We know we're better than that and hopefully we have more to offer. It's just back to the drawing board and try to learn from it and plan because we've got four games in two weeks coming up so we have the chance to make some difference," Long told the Saints website.

Midtjylland, from the town of Herning, won their first Danish title last season but were eliminated in the Champions League third qualifying round by APOEL of Cyprus.

The Danes, whose Ugandan-born starlet Pione Sisto is one to watch along with Finnish former Saint Tim Sparv, are owned by Englishman Matthew Benham, who is also the owner of London club Brentford.

Benham has championed an analytics-based approach that means the club relies heavily on statistics and mathematics when it comes to recruitment and team set-up.

- In Azerbaijan, Gabala entertain Greek outfit Panathinaikos having already won three ties in Europe this season.

However, this game will be played under something of a cloud as Gabala captain Javid Huseynov was one of six people arrested last week in relation to the death of journalist and rights activist Rasim Aliyev, who was severely beaten by attackers after criticising the player on Facebook.

Reports in Azerbaijan say Huseynov, a striker capped at international level, has been removed from the team until the situation has been clarified.

- Fenerbahce's big summer investment, which saw them sign the likes of Manchester United duo Robin van Persie and Nani as well as the Denmark defender Simon Kjaer and Brazil midfielder Sousa, was not enough for them to get the better of Shakhtar Donetsk in the Champions League third qualifying round.

Now the Istanbul giants can expect a warm welcome in Greece as they take on Athens outfit Atromitos, who finished fourth in their domestic league last season and have since signed the French striker Anthony Le Tallec, once of Liverpool.

- Fresh from beating Barcelona 5-1 on aggregate in the Spanish Super Cup to win their first silverware in 31 years, Athletic Bilbao travel to northern Slovakia to face MSK Zilina on Thursday.

Athletic, Europa League runners-up under Marcelo Bielsa in 2012, will need to quickly turn their focus towards a tie against opponents who have already come through three qualifiers to get to this stage.

After beating Barcelona, the Basque side's coach Ernesto Valverde said: "It is not the Copa del Rey or a Liga, but this trophy has immense value. There will be no better place to celebrate it than Bilbao."

Athletic are bidding to join fellow Spaniards Villarreal, who qualify automatically, in reaching the group stage.

- Borussia Dortmund have enjoyed an excellent start to life under new coach Thomas Tuchel, the successor to Jurgen Klopp. Dortmund, two-time UEFA Cup finalists, beat Borussia Moenchengladbach 4-0 in their opening game of the new Bundesliga campaign last weekend.

That followed a 2-0 defeat of third-tier Chemnitzer in the German Cup first round and a 6-0 aggregate victory against Wolfsberg of Austria in the third qualifying round.

Henrikh Mkhitaryan is a man in form, the Armenian having scored six goals in Dortmund's last three games.

Odd, who hail from Skien, two hours south of Oslo, came third in the Norwegian top flight last season and are fifth two-thirds of the way through this season.

In Europe, they have already beaten opposition from Moldova, Ireland and Sweden to reach this stage.

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