DAVID SMITH - Wednesday, March 28, 2012
The Europa League quarterfinals kick off, with Steve Cherundolo and Hannover visiting Spain's capital and Jozy Altidore hoping to push AZ to a home win over Valencia.
AZ Alkmaar - Valencia CF
Jozy Altidore will hope to be back in AZ's starting lineup on Thursday when they welcome Spanish team Valencia to the AFAS Stadium.
While defeating the third-place Spanish team to reach the semifinals would amount to one of the greatest-ever achievements for Alkmaar, recent history is on the team's side for taking some kind positive result from the first leg.
In their last eight European games on home soil, they have won six and drawn twice, and will be eager to build on their strong defensive performance over the weekend in Eredivisie play.
The 1-0 victory over Waalwijk kept them atop the league standings, and a similar result will be needed to keep the 2004 UEFA Cup champions at bay.
Valencia have lost their last two La Liga contests in a pair of disappointing performances, but nevertheless remain the best of the rest in Spain behind the big two of Barcelona and Real Madrid, and have never lost a two-legged contest to a Dutch team in their long European history.
Head coach Unai Emery will have a mostly full squad, with midfielders Ever Banega and Sergio Canales along with defender Miguel Monteiro the only injury absences, and French defender Adil Rami out on suspension.
For AZ, defender Nick Viergever is also suspended, while forward Roy Beerens is listed as doubtful due to a rib injury.
FC Schalke 04 - Athletic Bilbao
Jermaine Jones and Schalke will need to be at the top of their game on Thursday when giant killers Athletic Bilbao pay the Veltina Arena a visit.
Schalke come into Thursday's game on a roll, having won four straight in all competitions, all in highly convincing fashion.
Their will need to keep their confidence in check, as they are facing a pesky Bilbao squad that knocked out assumed tournament favorites Manchester United in the last round, and will be looking to add another scalp to their collection.
Legendary coach Marcelo Bielsa will undoubtedly bring his attractive attack-minded philosophy to Gelsenkirchen on Thursday, which will provide a stern test for Jones and the rest of the Schalke midfield and defense.
He will, however, have a tough task of taking on the German third-place team with an injury ridden squad that is missing defenders Aitor Ocio and Xabi Castillo along with midfielder David Lopez and team captain Carlos Gurpegi.
Schalke's injured keeping duo of Ralf Fährmann and Lars Unnerstall will once again force Timo Hildebrand to start between the sticks. Additionally, defenders Benedikt Höwedes and Christoph Metzelder are both still out with pulled muscles.
Atlético Madrid - Hannover 96
Steve Cherundolo and Hannover will look to continue their remarkable run through Europe when they visit 2010 winners Atlético Madrid.
A resounding two-legged win over Belgians Liege put Mirko Slomka's squad through to the final eight, but a far tougher task awaits against the competition's champions from two years ago and the current eighth-place La Liga squad.
Hannover may caught a break as Madrid playmaker Diego is still troubled by a thigh injury, and will not appear in the team's starting lineup on Thursday.
Nevertheless, they will have to deal with a high-powered attack headed by Colombian superstar Radamel Falcao, the third-leading scorer both in La Liga and this season's Europa League.
Hannover were beaten over the weekend in Bundesliga play by Bayern in a tight 2-1 contest, however their ability to keep the high-flying Bavarians in check has given the team confidence as they prepare to take the field at the Estadio Vicente Calderón.
The team is further boosted by the lack of any notable absences from their available squad.
Oguchi Onyewu is still recovering from a knee injury and will not suit up on Thursday evening for Sporting's home game against Ukrainian team Metalist Kharkiv.