European heavyweights Juventus and Liverpool will both seek to rescue disappointing seasons when the first legs of their respective UEFA Europa League last-16 ties kick-off on Thursday. Both clubs have fallen well off the pace in their domestic championships and face a battle to qualify for next season's UEFA Champions League.
Juve have begun to move in the right direction under new coach Alberto Zaccheroni, however, and are now just two points outside the Serie A top four after a 2-1 victory at Fiorentina on Saturday. Their Europa League opponents are Premier League club Fulham, who produced one of the upsets of the competition in the previous round by eliminating defending champions Shakhtar Donetsk of Ukraine.
"I don't think many teams will play football as well as Shakhtar Donetsk did," said Fulham's Welsh midfielder Simon Davies. "We've got to believe in ourselves because we've had some really good results lately. We'll play our game and remain solid. We know it's going to be a very tough game but we also know we're capable of getting a result."
Juve's Italy international centre-back Giorgio Chiellini will miss the match with a left thigh injury but should be fit for the return leg in London next week. "The Europa League is a great competition and to go all the way would be a great boost for the whole club," said Nicola Legrottaglie, who is expected to deputise for Chiellini in Turin.
Liverpool's stuttering campaign received a further blow when they went down 1-0 at relegation-threatened Wigan on Monday, denying them the opportunity to steal a march on their rivals for fourth place and a Champions League berth. Rafael Benitez's men on Thursday visit Lille, who have lost just one of their last 16 home games in European competition and who are the top scorers in the French top flight.
"Lille are a good team," said Benitez. "People maybe don't know too much about them but we've spoken with people in Valencia, because they played one another, and we have reports from the scouts. They are good at home. Maybe in the last two (league) games they haven't been at their level because I think they're maybe thinking about the Europa League - and that makes them even more dangerous."
Benfica have rekindled memories of their 1960s heyday by storming to the top of the Portuguese top division this season and they welcome Marseille to the Estadio da Luz. Marseille are three points off the top in Ligue 1 and midfielder Benoit Cheyrou says his Argentine team-mate Lucho Gonzalez, who joined from Porto last summer, has given them plenty of warning about Jorge Jesus's exciting side.
"He's told us loads of great things about this team," said Cheyrou. "Since the start of the season he's been telling us that they're the best team in the Portuguese championship with forwards like (Angel) Di Maria, (Javier) Saviola, (Pablo) Aimar, but also the Brazilian internationals behind them."
Marseille have been boosted by the news that captain Mamadou Niang should be fit to play after the Senegalese striker bruised his foot in the 1-1 draw with Lorient on Sunday. Werder Bremen, last season's losing finalists, travel to a Valencia side who scraped past Belgian outfit Club Bruges only thanks to an extra-time brace from midfielder Pablo Hernandez in the last round.
Greek league leaders Panathinaikos, who shocked Roma in the round of 32, host Standard Liege, while Russian champions Rubin Kazan take on German counterparts Wolfsburg fresh from a Russian Super Cup win over CSKA Moscow on Sunday. "We will see a different Rubin now," said Rubin coach Kurban Berdyev. "It's not the team that used to be afraid to lose."
In Thursday's other first-leg ties, Sporting Lisbon travel to Atletico Madrid, while Hamburg confront Anderlecht.