PREVIEW: EUROPA LEAGUE ACTION
DAVID SMITH - Thursday, April 5, 2012
Steve Cherundolo and Hannover face the task of overcoming a one-goal deficit to Spanish heavyweights Atletico while Jozy Altidore and AZ need to be cautious to protect their thin lead when they visit Bilbao.

Valencia CF - AZ Alkmaar (agg. 1-2)

Holding a slight 2-1 advantage from last week's home leg, Jozy Altidore and AZ are in a tricky position heading to Valencia, needing to avoid any slip if they hope to land in the semifinals.

While holding the advantage thanks to a late strike from Maarten Martens, Valencia's one away-goal does mean that a 1-0 win for Valencia would knock the Dutch team out of the competition.

AZ did fall out of first place in the Eredivisie over the weekend after a 2-2 draw at Vitesse, however the Spaniards are in the midst of a terrible domestic run, having won just once in the entire 2012 calendar year.

Valencia will be missing defenders Antonio Barragan and Angel Dealbert, both being suspended after picking up their second yellows of the knockout round in Alkmaar last week.

AZ are without suspended midfielder Adam Maher, along with defender Etienne Reijnen and midfielder Celso Ortiz, the former to an ankle problem and the latter with a knee injury.

Athletic Bilbao - FC Schalke 04 (agg. 4-2)

Jermaine Jones and Schalke will need their Easter miracle to come a few days earlier on Thursday evening as they seek to overcome a heavy deficit from the home leg on their trip to Athletic Bilbao.

Last Thursday's 4-2 loss in the Veltins Arena, put Schalke in the position of needing to score a blowout on Spanish soil in order to have any hope of resurrecting their Europa League run.

Practically speaking, they will need at least a three-goal performance in order to overturn Bilbao's four away goals from the first leg.

They have certainly shown their qualities on the road throughout the season, beating Haifa by a 3-0 score in Israel, inflicting a 5-0 beating on AEK Larnaka in sunny Cyprus, as well as racking up several blowouts on visits to Bundesliga opponents, however taking down a Spanish team in such a nature in essentially a one-off affair is an entirely different matter all-together.

If they have any major advantage, it will be that Bilbao could be feeling the effects of the long season, with two games per week since the start of March weighing heavily on a squad which has never made it so far in a major European competition.

Schalke did suffer some disappointment over the weekend in their 1-1 draw at Hoffenheim, with their Spanish opponents having been shut out by a 2-0 score on their trip to Barcelona on Saturday.

Königsblauen coach Huub Stevens is without defender Christian Fuchs and midfielder Julian Draxler in his traveling squad, both due to injury, while Bilbao are missing suspended defender Ander Iturraspe.

Hannover 96 - Atletico Madrid (agg. 1-2)

Steve Cherundolo and Hannover's remarkable European campaign hangs on the edge of a knife, with the team returning to their home AWD-Arena on Thursday needing to overturn a 2-1 deficit in order to reach the final four of the competition.

Mirko Slomka's men were able to escape Spain last week with an all-important away goal in the bag, which could prove crucial as they seek to take down La Liga's seventh-placed team in Germany.

Hannover have done well against Spanish opposition, with a 3-2 aggregate win over Sevilla in the final qualifying round all the way back in August beginning their unexpectedly deep European campaign.

They will almost certainly come into Thursday's game brimming with confidence, having looked back to their best in taking down Champions League-bound Borussia Mönchengladbach over the weekend.

Atletico are looking for their second Europa League title in the last three seasons, the first coming two years ago at the expense of Clint Dempsey and Fulham, and their 3-0 victory over Getafe in La Liga action on Sunday will have them primed for Thursday's showdown.

The absence of midfielders Gabi, Arda Turan and Juanfran from the Spanish team will certainly hamper their attack, and with midfielder Lars Stindl the only doubt for Hannover, the team will be hopeful of pushing to the needed win.

Notes

Oguchi Onyewu will be a spectator on Thursday when Sporting head to Ukraine to take on Metalist Kharkiv, needing to protect their 2-1 first-leg lead to reach the semifinal round.