DAVID SMITH - Wednesday, August 18, 2010
Aston Villa could have three Americans in uniform as they try to do better with their second shot in two years against Rapid Vienna while Jozy Altidore hopes to see time for Villarreal against Dnepr Mogilev.
Rapid Vienna - Aston Villa
Either Brad Friedel or his understudy Brad Guzan will start in goal for Villa on their trip to Rapid Vienna on Thursday while young defender Eric Lichaj could make his first-team debut for the injury-depleted squad.
The game will offer the Villans the perfect chance to either redeem themselves for last year's European failure or allow history to repeat itself, as they were knocked out at the exact same stage in the competition by Rapid on away goals after losing the first leg by a 1-0 scoreline in Vienna.
Even though they won their Premier League season opener against West Ham by a commanding 3-0 score, Villa is a team in disarray due not only to the widely unexpected departure of longtime coach Martin O'Neill barely a week ago, but also thanks to the highly-publicized sale of midfielder James Milner to oil-rich Manchester City in the days since.
Further complicating matters for caretaker manager Kevin MacDonald is the absence of several key players. Defender Richard Dunne is suspended, with the back line further weakened by the injuries to both Carlos Cuellar and James Collins.
Adding to his woes are additional injuries which will keep both John Carew and Gabriel Agbonlahor off the field. New addition Stephen Ireland will also be unable to participate in the round as his addition to the club was not in time to register the midfielder.
The mounting mountain of malaise could open the door for Lichaj to take the field just days after signing a three-year contract extension with the team, as he has been included in the team's traveling squad.
For their part, Rapid have had a less than stellar start to their Bundesliga campaign, offsetting their two wins with a pair of losses to sit eighth in the ten-team league.
Captained by German midfielder Steffen Hofmann, the Green-Whites are experienced participants in European competition, and will be eager to disappoint the Villa faithful by taking a place in the group stage for a second straight year at their opponents' expense.
The team is reporting no injuries or suspensions prior to the game.
Villarreal - Dnepr Mogilev
Jozy Altidore will hope to see substitute minutes for Villarreal on Thursday evening when they host tricky Belarusian team Dnepr Mogilev in their unexpected quest for the Europa League group stage.
Having spent much of the summer on the transfer block, Altidore has gradually worked his way back into the plans of head coach Juan Carlos Garrido and was a welcome inclusion in the team's 18-man roster for Thursday's clash.
Villarreal's participation in the Europa League came as somewhat of a surprise as their seventh-place finish in La Liga last season was not enough for European competition. However the financial difficulties of fifth-place Mallorca saw UEFA award the spot instead to the Yellow Submarine, giving the resurgent American his chance to take the field for the first time on the continental stage.
Getting past the relatively unknown Belarusian team from Mogilev looks on paper to be a mere formality, however Garrido's squad will need to be wary of a tricky Dnepr team which has fought to within two games of the group stage from a starting point in the first qualifying round.
Along the way they surprisingly took out Mikkel Diskerud's Stabaek team on away goals, and more recently posted a 3-1 aggregate win over Czechs Baník Ostrava.
Still in their pre-season, Villarreal are relatively healthy, with the only injury being to barely-used forward Marco Ruben. They will be without central defender Gonzalo Rodriguez as he was not registered for the current round, as well as attacker David Fuster, who was recently sold to Greek team Olympiakos.
With their domestic season nearly two-thirds through, Dnepr are far off the pace of earning a European spot for next season, and will want to make the best of their current shot at an unprecedented run.
Led by the talents of forward Vladimir Yurchenko who has already posted up an impressive five goals through the first three rounds, they head into the game reporting no injuries or suspensions.
Backup keeper Dominic Cervi will watch from the bench on Thursday night when Celtic try to avoid Europa League embarrassment against visiting Dutch team FC Utrecht.
Freddy Adu was not a part of the Aris team that took a 1-0 first-leg lead at home on Tuesday over Austria Vienna thanks to a 90th-minute goal from ex-MLSer Carlos Ruiz.