DAVID SMITH - Thursday, August 18, 2011
Brad Friedel could make his Tottenham debut against Hearts and Steve Cherundolo will hope to be back on the field for Hannover against Sevilla as qualification for the Europa League group stage enters its final round.
Bursaspor - RSC Anderlecht
Sacha Kljestan will likely be in Anderlecht's starting lineup on Thursday when they take on Turkish team Bursaspor, with an eye on grabbing an away goal in the first leg of their Europa League playoff.
Kljestan has been an integral part of the Anderlecht midfield in the early part of their domestic season, starting in their two most recent games - in both cases wins - as they look to return to the pinnacle of the Belgian top flight after a disappointing finish last year.
Having reached the knockout round of this competition last season, they will have a tough road to even reach the group stage this time around, taking on recent Turkish power Bursaspor.
Bursa spent last year competing in the Champions League where the finished last in a tough group including eventual finalists Manchester United, and will be looking for some redemption this season in the form of an extended run in the Europa League.
Anderlecht are without new acquisition Dieumerci Mbokani as the Congolese forward was injured during the week in training. Additionally, defender Roland Juhasz and midfielder Jonathan Legear are both highly doubtful for the game.
Bursaspor will be without the suspended forward Turgay Bahadır, with keeper Scott Carson, along with forward Teteh Bangura and defender CemalCemal Kaldırım all questionable for the game.
Heart of Midlothian - Tottenham Hotspur
After Tottenham's Premier League season opener was postponed due to rioting in England, the American veteran could make his debut for the club when they make the relatively short north to visit Scottish team Hearts.
Having signed with the north London club early in the summer transfer window, Friedel as forced to wait and watch as the Premier League season kicked off without him over the weekend due to Tottenham's postponement.
Although he was rarely used for European competition by previous team Aston Villa, Friedel could be called upon by Spurs head coach Harry Redknapp could call on the American as they try to pass their Scottish.
Spurs were one of the big surprises of last season's Champions League, topping defending champions Inter Milan in the group stage and knocking out their neighbors AC Milan in the round of 16 before eventually dropping out at the hands of Real Madrid.
While the Europa League is a major step down for the team which was basking on the biggest international stage less than one year ago, beating their Scottish counterparts will nevertheless be an important step as they try to maintain the financial clout needed to have a squad which can challenge for a top-four spot in the Premier League, and a subsequent re-entry into Europe's elite.
Hearts will be missing midfielder Mehdi Taouil to injury, and could see the return of midfielder David Obua and defender Andy Webster after the two resumed training during the week. Additionally, strikers Kevin Kyle and Calum Elliot are out with long-term injuries.
Despite having yet to play a single competitive game on the year, Tottenham have a severe shortage of players. Ledley King, Alan Hutton and William Gallas are all absent from the defense due to injury, along with midfielders Sandro, Steven Pienaar, Jermaine Jenas, Luka Modric, Tom Huddlestone and Wilson Palacios.
The lone piece of good news is that Dutch midfielder Rafael van der Vaart could be in the lineup as he appears fully recovered from an ankle injury.
NK Maribor - Rangers FC
Maurice Edu will try to carry his goalscoring feat of the weekend along with him on Rangers' trip to Slovenian NK Maribor while leaving all memory of his red card behind in Glasgow as they look to gain an early advantage in their quest for the group stage.
Newly-acquired Ranger midfielder Alejandro Bedoya will need some time to settle with the team before suiting up and will not be on the field, however his international teammate Carlos Bocanegra could very well be included in head coach Ally McCoist's starting lineup.
Rangers humiliatingly saw their shot at the Champions League disappear with their shock aggregate loss to Swedish champs Malmö in the third qualifying round, and will try to avoid making a mess of their Europa League consolation prize.
McCoist has strengthened his team in recent days with a pair of American internationals, getting the good news that midfielder Alejandro Bedoya will be joining a few months earlier than planned after they reached a deal with his former employers Örebro, then signing US captain Carlos Bocanegra to a long-term deal on the eve of the game.
Reports from Rangers camp indicate that Carlos Bocanegra could very well be in McCoist's starting eleven for the game, however Bedoya will have to wait until a possible group stage berth by the team to be added to their European roster.
For Rangers, defenders David Weir and Kyle Bartley are both injured, while fellow defenders Sasa Papac and Steven Whittaker are both suspended for the first leg. Additionally, striker Kyle Lafferty is a doubt as he is still recovering from an earlier injury.
The hosts are likely missing team captain Marcos Tavares as the Brazilian striker is struggling with a back injury.
FC Nordsjaelland - Sporting CP
Michael Parkhurst and Nordsjaelland will hope that a second shot at Portuguese team Sporting CP will yield the results that will put them into their first-ever European group stage.
Sporting defender Oguchi Onyewu will almost certainly be on the bench to start the game, but could be called upon should head coach Carlos Freitas need bulky defensive reinforcements.
For a second straight season, the Wild Tigers face Sporting in the final hurdle to the group stage, and will yet again be seen as underdogs.
Fortunately for the Danes, they will have both overall fitness and momentum on their side, having already played five domestic games, winning the previous two, while Sporting only kicked off their season last weekend with a draw against Rio Ave F.C.
Last season's play-off meeting between the two teams saw Sporting win both legs on the way to an aggregate 3-1 win, and they went on to win their group before being promptly knocked out in the final 32 at the foot of Maurice Edu and Rangers.
Nordsjaelland have a full squad to choose from while Sporting are also reporting no absences.
Fulham FC - Dnipro Dnipropetrovsk
Clint Dempsey will be on the field from the start on Thursday when Fulham host Ukrainian team Dnipro Dnipropetrovsk in the first leg between these two teams.
After a grueling qualification campaign which has taken them north to the Faroe Islands and southeast to Croatia, Fulham are on the cusp of the group stage.
They will surely be favored in this first home leg, as they still hold an all-time undefeated record at home in European competition, winning 14 times and drawing on four occasions.
The Cottagers have had good fortune the only other time they have faced Ukrainian opposition, downing then-defending champs Shakhtar Donetsk in early-2009 in the Europa League round of 32 on their way to a berth in the final.
Their opponents will have the advantage of being well into their season with six games already played in the Ukrainian Premier League, although they have been decidedly run-of-the-mill so far, splitting their six games evenly between wins, draws and losses.
Fulham must make do without midfielders Simon Davies and Bjorn Helge Riise, the former to a knee problem and the latter with a hamstring injury.
Dnipro are reporting no absences to their squad.
Aalesunds FK - AZ Alkmaar
Jozy Altidore will likely feature for new team AZ Alkmaaar on Thursday when they slide east to pay a visit to Norwegians Aalesunds FK.
Altidore has already been well-used by AZ head coach Gertjan Verbeek, taking the field in each of their first two league games, while already having found the net once.
They are trying to reach the group stage of European competition for a third year running, after finishing third in their Europa League group last season, and dead-last in the Champions League one year earlier.
Aalesund have had a long qualification run so far, entering under Fair Play criteria back in late-June, and fairly easily beating Welsh, Hungarian and Swedish opposition en route to the matchup with last season's fourth-place Dutch finishers.
AZ are missing forward Ruud Boymans who was left at home to recover from an injury, and the status of Maarten Martens will be decided at the last minute as the midfielder is struggling with an ankle injury.
Aalesund are not listing any absences from their team.
Hannover 96 - Sevilla FC
Steve Cherundolo and Hannover face a huge test on Thursday night, hosting two-time UEFA Cup winners Sevilla FC in a tough first leg of Europa League qualification.
Cherundolo has yet to feature in Hannover's first two domestic games, although he has been ready to go from the bench, but his veteran presence will likely be called upon by head coach Mirko Slomka against perhaps the toughest team competing at this stage of the competition.
Even with their captain having been rested likely to allow a full recovery from his summer ankle injury, Hannover have continued their success of last season's fourth-place Bundesliga finish, winning their first two to sit atop the standings alongside Mainz.
They face a tricky task in hosting La Liga's fifth-place team and the winners of two straight UEFA Cups in 2006 and 2007 for Thursday's first leg, as they will likely need to build a lead while avoiding any away goals should they hope to have any chance to hang on in the return leg in Spain.
The one potential card they hold in their favor will be a better level of fitness, as the Spaniards have yet to play any competitive games so far this season, while Hannover have been rolling on all cylinders through two league and one German Cup game.
Hannover are missing long-term midfield injuries Leon Andreasen and Carlitos, along with new arrival Artur Sobiech as the forward is regaining his fitness after a knee injury.
Sevilla are not reporting any absences from their team.
Dominic Cervi will likely lose his place on Celtic's bench as backup keeper for Thursday night's game at home against Swiss team FC Sion after the acquired the services of Fraser Forster on a season-long loan.
Jonathan Spector is still awaiting his Birmingham debut appearance, and will hope that it comes on Thursday night when they head to Portugal to take on CD Nacional.
After missing Schalke's weekend game to rest up after international play, Jermaine Jones could be an option for FC Schalke 04 coach Ralf Rangnick on Thursday night in defensive midfield when they head north to visit Finnish powerhouse HJK Helsinki.