DAVID SMITH - Thursday, August 25, 2011
Clint Dempsey and Fulham just need to avoid collapse in Ukraine while Steve Cherundolo and Hannover will try to hang onto their thin lead at Sevilla in Thursday's final push for the Europa League group stage.
RSC Anderlecht - Bursaspor (agg. 2-1)
Sacha Kljestan has hit his stride in recent weeks, which could bode well for Anderlecht on Thursday when they host Turkish team Bursaspor, holding a 2-1 lead in the aggregate series.
The team's win in Turkey was an important step to the group stage, as they much simply avoid defeat at home to go through.
Kljestan played that game in its entirety, and as he is currently enjoying perhaps his best run of play since coming to Belgium, will almost certainly be called upon to work the midfield from the opening whistle on Thursday.
The American was instrumental in the team's 2-2 weekend draw against Mons, where he assisted on the first score as they not only came back from a two-goal deficit, but did it with only ten men on the field.
No such heroics should be needed in Thursday's return leg if they do their work to keep Bursaspor at bay. A win or draw to the hosts or even a 1-0 loss at the hands of their visitors will see them come through the series victorious, while any loss by a margin of two or more or which sees Bursa nab more than two away goals will leave them empty-handed.
Anderlecht are missing summer signing Dieumerci Mbokani who is out for at least two months with injury, and forward Matias Suarez, defender Roland Juhasz and midfielder Fernando Canesin Matos are all questionable with injuries.
For the visitors, keeper Scott Carson, along with forward Teteh Bangura and defender Cemal Kaldırım all questionable for the game.
Rangers FC - NK Maribor (agg. 1-2)
Both Maurice Edu and Carlos Bocanegra should be in the starting lineup for Rangers on Thursday as they return to Ibrox, needing to overturn a 2-1 deficit against Slovenian team NK Maribor if they hope to avoid a total lack of European competition this season.
Alejandro Bedoya will likely have to wait until the weekend for a possible debut with the team, as the team used last-minute addition before the play-off to put Bocanegra in the roster.
In contrast to their failure to gain an advantage in last week's first leg, Rangers came out victorious in league play over the weekend in their 3-0 win over previously unbeaten Motherwell.
None of their trio of Americans played in that game due to suspension and visa issues, however both Bocanegra and Edu should be on the field from the get-go.
Maribor's 2-1 home leg victory means that Rangers need to win by at least one goal to avoid the disaster of no Group Stage play. An identical 2-1 scoreline in favor of Ally McCoist's squad would force overtime, a 1-0 win or victory by greater margin would see them through outright, while a one-goal margin of victory by Rangers with two or more goals scored by their Slovenian opposition would leave them with only domestic play to look for.
Rangers defender Kirk Broadfoot is questionable for the game with a foot problem and both Steven Naismith and Steven Whittaker are suspended. Additionally, David Weir, Kyle Bartley and Sasa Papac are all sidelined with various injuries.
Maribor are likely missing team captain Marcos Tavares as the Brazilian striker is struggling with a back injury.
Sporting CP - FC Nordsjaelland (agg. 0-0)
Michael Parkhurst will be in the Nordsjaelland defense on Thursday on the team's trip to Sporting CP, when they try to make the most of a hard-fought scoreless first leg in Denmark last week.
The Wild Tigers did well to keep their visitors off the scoreboard in last week's first leg, but will have their work cut out for them if they still hope to pass through to the group stage.
The last time they played in Portugal almost exactly one year ago ended in a 2-1 defeat which put them out of the competition, and they will try their best prevent a similar result and reach what would be their first-ever European group stage.
Sporting must still be viewed as heavy favorites, and a result which would see them drop out - namely a win by Nordsjaelland or scored draw - would be a massive shock.
Nordsjaelland traveled with a full squad to Portugal, while the hosts are also reporting no absences from their available squad.
Dnipro Dnipropetrovsk - Fulham FC (agg. 0-3)
After netting a pair of goals in Fulham's first leg at Craven Cottage one week before, Clint Dempsey will look for a strong followup when the team visits Ukrainians Dnipro Dnipropetrovsk in the return leg.
Fulham's strong performance last week in England pulled much of the pressure off their shoulders ahead of their trip east to Ukraine, and they will simply need to avoid an utter collapse to win the aggregate series.
They have yet to take off in Premier League play, totaling one solitary point through their first two games, but the success of reaching the group stage could be a catalyst to push them forward.
The attack will be hurt with the likely absence of Bobby Zamora due to an ankle injury, and will also be missing the steady presence of Simon Davies in the midfield as he is out with a knee problem. Additionally, Bjorn Helge Riise is still out with a pulled hamstring.
Dnipro coach Juande Ramos is not reporting any absences to his available squad.
AZ Alkmaar - Aalesunds FK (agg. 1-2)
Jozy Altidore's strong two-goal performance over the weekend for AZ should assure his place in the team's starting lineup when they return to the AFAS Stadion, needing to overturn a 2-1 deficit to Norwegian team Aalesunds FK.
Alkmaar were unable to hold off the relative Norwegian minnows in the first away leg, giving up a late goal to put the pressure on for the return leg.
Altidore was a late substitute in that game, but his two-goal starting performance in Eredivisie play last weekend should assure his place in the starting eleven.
AZ need to win in order to go through, and will likely be on the attack in front of the home crowd in an effort to avoid what would be a fairly huge embarrassment.
They should have a full squad available to play, as will their Norwegian visitors.
Sevilla FC - Hannover 96 (agg. 1-2)
Steve Cherundolo will be in the starting lineup for Hannover on Thursday, as they fight tooth and nail to hang onto a narrow 2-1 lead over Spanish team Sevilla in the Estadio Ramón Sánchez Pizjuán.
Hannover shocked their Spanish visitors by pulling out the first-leg victory, and will face an all-out attack from Sevilla in Thursday's return leg.
Should Hannover somehow get the victory or draw needed to push through to the group stage, they will be removing one of the competition's early favorites to reach next year's final in Bucharest.
If their early success in the Bundesliga is any signal, where they are currently in a tie for first place, they could have the talent and drive to cause their Spanish hosts some serious headaches.
One last-minute blow to their hopes is a knock to Cherundolo's ankle, which could keep their captain out of the starting lineup.
In addition, they 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 missing defender Emir Spahić and midfielder Emiliano Armenteros.
Birmingham City FC - CD Nacional (agg. 0-0)
Jonathan Spector will look for his third straight start for Birmingham FC on Thursday, when they host Portuguese team CD Nacional with both teams doing their best to break the scoreless aggregate deadlock.
Spector made his debut appearance for Birmingham one week before as they were able to return home from Portugal with an important draw, and after playing the first 72 minutes in the team's league game over the weekend, he will likely be in line for a third straight start on Thursday.
While they have the advantage of not needing to make up a deficit, the Blues will have to tread carefully against Nacional, as allowing an away goal would severely dampen their chances to go through.
Any outright win by either team will be enough for the group stage, while a scored draw would favor Nacional. A scoreless draw would send the game into extra time.
The hosts will be missing midfielder Jordan Mutch as he will be out for at least three months with a broken foot. In addition, strikers Cameron Jerome, Merlon King and Nikola Zigic along with midfielder Morgaro Gomis are all missing due to injury.
Furthermore, loan signing Guirane N'Daw is not yet registered for the competition, and defender Scott Dann has been left out of the lineup in anticipation of a transfer move.
Nacional are not reporting any absences to their squad.
Brad Friedel will likely be left on the bench by Tottenham coach Harry Redknapp on Thursday to rest up for Premier League play, when Spurs host Scottish team Hearts at White Hart Lane carrying a 5-0 lead into their second-leg game.
Dominic Cervi has been pushed down to the number-three keeper at Celtic, and most likely won't be in uniform on Thursday night at Parkhead when they try to get past Swiss team FC Sion, with the teams knotted at zero goals apiece.
Jermaine Jones has been used sparingly by Schalke coach Ralf Rangnick so far this season, and will at best hope to be included on the team's bench on Thursday as they return home with the hopes of overturning their 2-0 deficit to Finnish team HJK Helsinki.