Argentine influence adds Europa intrigue

In-form Paris Saint-Germain will be looking to underline their status as contenders to win this season's UEFA Europa League when they travel to Athletic Bilbao on Thursday in a game that will have a strong Argentine flavour.

PSG are already looking like the real deal following a summer spending spree by their new Qatari owners that created headlines all across the continent. The French capital club are joint top of Ligue 1 after going unbeaten through their last seven matches and beat Austrian side Salzburg in their opening game in Europa League group F.

Javier Pastore has wasted no time in demonstrating why PSG sporting director Leonardo was prepared to sign him from Palermo in a French record transfer deal, and the Argentine international has already scored four times in six league appearances. He could have a central role to play as Antoine Kombouare's men head to the Basque Country to face an Athletic side who have endured a difficult start to the campaign in Spain.

Athletic appointed the Argentine, and former Chile coach, Marcelo Bielsa as their new coach in the summer. However, unlike Pastore, Bielsa is struggling to make his mark at the moment, and Athletic have yet to win in five league games.

They did win at Slovan Bratislava in their opening group match, however, and Spain midfielder Javi Martinez hopes that a change of scene can once again do Athletic some good.

"The Europa League is a beautiful competition that motivates all of us," he said. "We got off to a great start in Bratislava and a win on Thursday would allow us to take a very big step towards achieving our initial objective, which is to qualify for the knockout stages."

Athletic's hopes could be boosted by the fact that PSG will be without Jeremy Menez, Kevin Gameiro, Mamadou Sakho, Milan Bisevac and Guillaume Hoarau for the game.

Bhoys seek Italian job
Meanwhile, Celtic will hope to prove that they are worthy of a place in the competition proper by recording their first win when they face Udinese in Glasgow. Celtic were only handed a place in the group stage after Sion, their conquerors in the play-offs, were thrown out following a row over fielding ineligible players. They were brushed aside by Atletico Madrid in their first outing in Group I but Celtic Park has seen many great European nights in the recent past.

Striker Gary Hooper is hoping a large Parkhead crowd can spur Neil Lennon's team to victory against an Udinese side who sit second in Serie A just now. "It's going to be a big night and hopefully it's a full crowd," said Hooper.

"We want to do well in the league and in Europe and we want to try and win every game in every competition. Atletico Madrid was a tough game but now we are on our home turf and we can keep attacking, see what they have got, and go from there."

It is David versus Goliath at White Hart Lane as Tottenham Hotspur play host to League of Ireland hopefuls Shamrock Rovers in Group A. Tottenham boss Harry Redknapp is using European nights to rotate his squad, but Shamrock boss Michael O'Neill knows his men face a huge test regardless of who features for the hosts.

"They have 25 players to choose from, although Rafael van der Vaart is not in their Europa League squad. That's one less thing to worry about," O'Neill said. "But maybe at home they will play a stronger team given that the travel element and logistics are not there. I have no idea what we will face, but it will still be a strong team."

England's other representatives could face trickier tests, as Stoke City entertain Besiktas of Turkey in Group E, Fulham go to Denmark to face Odense in Group K, and Birmingham City meet Maribor in Slovenia.

Amongst the other stand-out ties on the night, Bundesliga giants Schalke play host to Maccabi Haifa in Group J in what will be the first match of Huub Stevens' second spell in charge in Gelsenkirchen, while Lazio travel to the Portuguese capital to take on Sporting Lisbon in Group D.