PREVIEW: EUROPA LEAGUE ACTION
The Europa League takes center stage in Europe this week with Tim Howard and Everton visiting AEK Athens on Wednesday while Clint Dempsey and Fulham host CSKA Sofia on Thursday.
AEK Athens – Everton
Three points on the road for Tim Howard and Everton could seal a spot in the final 32 of the Europa League as the Toffees take on AEK Athens at OACA Spiros Louis Stadium on Wednesday.
Howard will assume his normal spot in goal for head coach David Moyes who will be looking to see his squad repeat their last performance against the Greek club in Group I action. Back on Matchday One, Everton took AEK to the woodshed with a 4-0 thrashing at Merseyside.
Wednesday's encounter is shaping up as a much more difficult task for Howard and company as their last two matches in the tournament ended in bitter disappointment with two shutout losses to Portuguese club Benfica, including a 5-0 thrashing in Lisbon back on Matchday Three.
Everton's domestic campaign has not fared much better as they sit just three points ahead of Bolton in the relegation zone.
Coming away with a win in what will assuredly be a daunting environment in Athens would go a long way towards boosting the confidence of the visitors and would help restore some job security for Moyes. Team leading scorer Louis Saha, Tim Cahill and Steven Pienaar will be looked upon by the head man to rekindle the Everton attack against the hosts.
A victory, coupled with a Benfica win over Bate Barisov will send the English club to the next round.
The Greeks enter the match with doubts of their own after failing to defeat Barisov at home on Matchday Four. AEK have also been eliminated from the Greek Cup and are 12 points behind the leaders in the Super League so any hopes of adding silverware to the club's trophy case rely on their play in the European tournament.
Head coach Dušan Bajević knows that a loss will mean an exit from the tourney so he will be looking to Argentinean forward Ismael Blanco to spearhead the offensive effort against Howard.
Everton's Joseph Yobo is a scratch after injuring himself this past Sunday against Liverpool as is Leon Osman who will miss due to a foot injury. Lucas Neill and John Heitings are also unavailable for Moyes in addition to Phil Neville, Victor Anichebe, James Vaughan, Mikel Arteta and Phil Jagielka.
Bajević will be missing Hungarian forward and Liverpool loanee Krisztian Nemeth and Bosnian defender Sahel Jahic.
Fulham - CSKA Sofia
Group E action returns to London as Clint Dempsey and Fulham welcome in CSKA Sofia to Craven Cottage on Thursday.
Fulham head coach Roy Hodgson will need a big effort by Dempsey and his fellow midfielders to help the Cottagers claim a spot in the next round.
With forward Bobby Zamora unavailable, part of the role of playmaker and goalscorer will fall on the shoulders of the native Texan who will look to pair with Irish midfielder Damian Duff to generate scoring opportunities against the Bulgarians.
Hodgson's squad sit in third place with five points in the group and are two points behind second place AS Roma who face group leaders FC Basel. A tough visit to Switzerland awaits Dempsey and company on the final matchday so a victory against the Sofia-based club is paramount to the chances of a place in the final 32.
The 31-time Bulgarian champions are in the midst of a turbulent period at the club. Back on November 9th, head coach Luboslav Penev resigned after his suspension of nine players due to inappropriate conduct was reversed by team owners.
The resignation was not accepted by the club so Penev stayed on as head man. However the problems for the former Valencia and Atletico Madrid man did not stop there as a Bulgarian judge ruled this week that Penev will not be allowed to travel with the team to London.
It has come to light the coach owes $1.8 million in unpaid bank loans and the local court has ruled that Penev is prohibited from traveling outside of Bulgaria.
Assistant coach Radoslav Zdravkov will have the task of manning the CSKA sideline in place of the fiscally-challenged Penev.
In addition to Zamora, Hodgson will miss the services of Andy Johnson, Danny Murphy and Diomansy Kamara while Brazilian striker Marquinhos and forward Ivan Stoyanov are unavailable for the visitors.
Jared Jeffrey will likely not feature on Wednesday for Club Brugge as they travel to the Ukraine to take on defending champion Shakhtar Donetsk.
Dominic Cervi will hope to make the bench as Celtic play host to Israel outfit Hapoel Tel-Aviv FC on Wednesday.
Bryan Arguez will play no part for Hertha Berlin who head north to Latvia on Thursday to take on FK Ventspils.