Big guns target Europa progress
Liverpool, Juventus and big-spending Manchester City are three of the top-rank teams hoping to avoid an early curtailment to their European ambitions in the UEFA Europa League on Thursday.
A welter of high-profile clubs from across the continent will compete in the first-leg matches of the tournament's play-off round, all gunning for one of 37 slots in the group phase alongside defending champions Atletico Madrid. Roy Hodgson was on the losing side in last year's final after leading Fulham to a surprise appearance in the decider, but the experienced English coach has since jumped ship to Liverpool.
His new employers continue their assault on this season's competition against Trabzonspor, and Hodgson says he will select holding midfielder Javier Mascherano to face the Turkish side despite his desire to leave the club. "Of course I would play him on Thursday," said Hodgson, whose side drew 1-1 at home to Arsenal in their Premier League opener on Sunday. He is a Liverpool player and I hope he will continue to be a Liverpool player. For me, he will always be available for selection until the day comes when he's no longer here."
Liverpool and fellow giants Juventus had to come through the Europa League third qualifying round after both sides finished seventh in their respective domestic leagues last term. Juve saw off Irish side Shamrock Rovers to reach the play-off round and now face a meeting with Austrians Sturm Graz.
"The draw turned out to be a tricky one for us," said Juventus coach Luigi Del Neri, who took over from Alberto Zaccheroni earlier in the summer. We can't underestimate the task; I will field the best possible XI. I don't know how far we can go, but we don't want to set ourselves a limit."
Focus on Balotelli
Attention on City is likely to be intense, after they took their summer spending beyond £100m by completing the protracted signing of striker Mario Balotelli from Inter Milan last week. Balotelli could make his debut against Romanians FC Timisoara at the City of Manchester Stadium on Thursday.
Competition for places in Roberto Mancini's starting XI will now be stronger than ever, but goalkeeper Shay Given believes their strength in depth will give them an edge in the Europa League. "We have a strong squad so I'd imagine we're probably one of the favourites, but we've got to go out on the pitch and prove that," the Irishman told uefa.com. "The Europa League (means) there's a lot of games and the squad will be needed for those games, but we've got a strong chance of doing very, very well."
Michael Ballack could make his second competitive debut for Bayer Leverkusen when they host Tavriya Simferopol of the Ukraine, having rejoined his former club after leaving Chelsea at the end of last season.
Leverkusen's compatriots Borussia Dortmund tackle Azerbaijani side Qarabag and Dortmund coach Juergen Klopp is delighted to be returning to continental competition after a season in the European wilderness. "Maybe a club like Bayern Munich would not be too thrilled to take part in the Europa League but for us this is pure happiness," said Klopp, whose side finished fifth in the Bundesliga in 2009/10.
Other notable sides in action on Thursday include Napoli, Porto, Villarreal, Paris Saint-Germain, CSKA Moscow and PSV Eindhoven, with the second legs taking place on 24 and 26 August.