Europa League preview: Chelsea to debut, Liverpool visit Zenit
By Football News
European champions Chelsea headline the eight Champions League teams entering the Europa League knockout stage on Thursday.
Chelsea bowed out of the Champions League behind Juventus and Shakhtar Donetsk, but qualified for the Europa League round of 32 by finishing third in Group E.
Other Champions League sides joining the Europa League include Ajax, Zenit St Petersburg, Dynamo Kiev and Benfica.
BATE Borisov, Olympiacos and CFR Cluj, who stunned Manchester United at Old Trafford in the group stage, also moved from the Champions League to the secondary competition.
Of the last 32, Chelsea are the only club who have never previously competed in the Europa League.
With teams to meet over two legs in the knockout stage, Chelsea open their campaign at Sparta Prague.
Prague have not played a competitive match since December 6 due to their winter break, but boast a superb home record in European competition.
Prague are unbeaten in their past 11 European games at Letna Stadium, having accounted for the likes of Athletic Bilbao and Palermo in the process.
Chelsea, on the other hand, have won just one of their past five matches in all competitions, heaping further pressure on interim manager Rafael Benitez.
Elsewhere, Ajax take on Steaua Bucharest, hoping to improve on their recent European home record in their fifth consecutive appearance in the last 32.
Ajax have lost four of their past five European home matches, while Steaua are undefeated in five European away games this season.
Zenit are at home to Liverpool, who are aiming to win the title for a record fourth time.
Liverpool, who tasted UEFA Cup success in 1973, 1976 and 2001, have their sights set on Europa League glory following elimination from the English FA Cup and League Cup.
Kiev are up against Bordeaux, while Benfica travel to Bayer Leverkusen and BATE entertain Fenerbahce.
Olympiacos face Levante away from home, while Cluj tackle Inter Milan, who are also seeking a record fourth title.
In other matches, Tottenham Hotspur welcome Lyon, with goalkeeper Hugo Lloris set to face his former side for the first time.
Metalist take on Newcastle United, who are unbeaten in 11 European home games since a loss in the 2005 UEFA Intertoto Cup.
Defending champions Atletico Madrid continue their bid for a third title in four seasons at home to Rubin Kazan.
Meanwhile, Anzhi Makhachkala host Hannover, while Genk make the short journey to Stuttgart and Viktoria Plzen face an uphill battle against Napoli.
Dnipro Dnipropetrovsk are away to the Basel, while Borussia Moenchengladbach entertain Lazio, who have the equal-best defence in the competition.