DAVID SMITH - Friday, August 5, 2011
The final play-off round to reach the group stage of the Europa League was set on Friday, giving Clint Dempsey and Fulham a return to Ukraine, and setting up a tough Spanish test for Steve Cherundolo's Hannover.
Fulham had few problems to finish their two-legged third-round victory over RNK Split at Craven Cottage, and have been rewarded with one of the toughest teams available to them via the specifics of the draw, Ukrainian fourth-place finishers FC Dnipro Dnipropetrovsk.
Fulham's last two-legged series against Ukrainian opposition was a huge success, as they knocked out then-reigning champions Shakhtar Donetsk in the round of 32 in early-2010 on their way to the final.
Dnipro are led by former Tottenham head coach Juande Ramos, who has had great success in this competition after leading Sevilla to two consecutive crowns in both 2006 and 2007.
An all-Yank match-up awaits when Danish Cup winners FC Nordsjaelland and Portuguese third-place team Sporting CP meet, as central defenders Michael Parkhurst and Oguchi Onyewu go head-to-head.
The pairing is a repeat of one year prior, when Sporting beat the Wild Tigers over two legs by a 3-1 aggregate scoreline to advance to the group stage.
New Birmingham signing Jonathan Spector will also face Portuguese opposition when they take on Primera Liga sixth-place finishers CD Nactional.
Despite having been relegated to the second tier of England after last season, a win in the League Cup allowed them to make their first European appearance in 50 years when they competed several times in the predecessor to this competition, the Inter-Cities Fairs Cup.
Steve Cherundolo and Hannover have been handed perhaps the toughest opponent in the entire competition, as they must deliver what would be a major upset over Spaniards Sevilla FC if they hope to reach the group stage.
Hannover have a fairly thin European resume, with their last berth coming close to 20 years ago in the Cup Winners Cup, and their only other continental competition before also in the Inter-Cities Fair Cup.
Maurice Edu and Rangers are still feeling the sting of their Champions League qualification exit at the hands of Malmö FF, and will be looking to avoid a similar shock against Slovenian powerhouse NK Maribor, an opponent they should have few problems to beat.
New AZ Alkmaar striker Jozy Altidore did not take part in the team's 3-1 aggregate win in the third round of qualification, however will most likely have his chance to shine on the European stage when they take on Norwegians Aalesunds FK.
During his extensive travels since moving to Europe in 2008, the 21 year-old forward has gotten his feet wet in this competition, playing seven games in the Europa League for Villarreal in 2010.
Anderlecht midfielder Sacha Kljestan was also a regular for his team in Europe last season, making six appearances in both Champions League qualification and Europa League play.
He will likely play a role in their series against Turkush team Bursaspor, as they look to book their place in the group stage.
Rounding out the Europa League draw is a date for Scottish runners-up Celtic and their American backup keeper Dominic Cervi with Swiss team FC Sion, and duel with Finnish powerhouse HJK for Schalke 04, who are currently trying unsuccessfully to offload German-American midfielder Jermaine Jones.
Pairings for the Champions League were also set in the draw, however no Americans will be participating in that stage of the competition as Benfica will not be calling upon Freddy Adu for their games against FC Twente.
Europa League games are to be played on August 18 and 25.
Champions/Europa League play-off round draw
Champions League play-off round
FC Twente - SL Benfica
Europa League play-off round
Bursaspor - RSC Anderlecht
NK Maribor - Rangers
FC Nordsjaelland - Sporting CP
FC Dnipro Dnipropetrovsk - Fulham FC
FC Sion - Celtic FC
CD Nacional - Birmingham City FC
Aalesunds FK - AZ Alkmaar
Hannover - Sevilla
HJK - FC Schalke 04