Europa League: 5 Matches to Watch on Thursday

Joe Tansey@JTansey90Featured ColumnistAugust 23, 2012

Europa League: 5 Matches to Watch on Thursday

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    The big clubs of Europe have already started play in the UEFA Champions League this week, but some unexpected clubs are stuck in the UEFA Europa League this season.

    The playoff round featuring 62 clubs begins on Thursday, with the second leg of each match happening next Thursday, August 30th.

    After the playoff round, the winning clubs from each set of matches will advance to the group stage, just like in the Champions League, but the group stage in the Europa League features 48 clubs instead of 32.

    With the usual suspects in the Europa League all starting off in the playoff round, the focus will be on Liverpool and Inter Milan, arguably the two biggest clubs in the round.

Anzhi Makhachkala vs. AZ Alkmaar

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    Big money club Anzhi Makhachkala of Russia are finally making their first venture into European play since being bought by billionaire Suleyman Kerimov.

    During the brief reign of Kerimov, he has brought in Samuel Eto'o, Yuri Zhrikov and Chris Samba.

    Kerimov's most important acquisition may be at the managerial position where Guus Hiddink has taken charge of the club.

    AZ Alkmaar finished fourth in the Eredivisie last season and are only relevant to American fans because of a certain star forward being on their squad.

    Jozy Altidore is in his second season with the Dutch club, and after scoring 15 league goals last season, he already has four in two games this season.

    The first leg of this matchup will not be played at Anzhi's home stadium; it is being played at Lokomotiv Stadium in Moscow on Thursday before switching venues to the AFAS Stadion in a week's time.

Inter Milan vs. Vaslui

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    After a disappointing sixth place finish in Serie A last season, Inter Milan enter foreign territory in the Europa League.

    Andrea Stramaccioni is still in charge of the Nerazzuri and has revamped the roster.

    Stars like Wesley Sneijder, Maicon and Diego Milito are still at the club but a bunch of fresh new faces will enter the fray as well this season.

    Among those new faces are Antonio Cassano, Samir Handanovic and Fredy Guarin.

    As for Vaslui, they qualified for the Europa League by finishing second in the Romanian League last season and they will host the first leg of the matchup at the Ceahlaul Stadium in Piatra Neamt, which is not their regular home venue.

Molde vs. Heerenveen

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    In the matchup between Norway's Molde and Heerenveen of Holland, the two managers were stars as players and are now looking to lead their clubs to success as a manager.

    Ole Gunnar Solksjaer is in charge of Molde, and after they failed to advance in Champions League qualifying, the Norwegian champions find themselves fighting for a group stage spot in the Europa League.

    Marco van Basten is in charge of Heerenveen, who finished fifth in the Eredivisie last season and advanced to the playoff round with a win over Rapid Bucuresti in the third round.

    The difference between the two managers is that Solksjaer has already achieved success with his club by winning the 2011 Norweigan Tippeligaen title while van Basten is in his first year in charge of his club.

Athletic Bilbao vs. HJK

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    Athletic Bilbao will look to get back to the Europa League final once again this season, yet FInland's HJK stand in their way of making the group stage.

    Bilbao were the feel good story in European football last season as they took down Manchester United, Schalke and Sporting Lisbon on their way to the final, where they eventually lost to Atletico Madrid.

    Bilbao's success last season introduced fans to Fernando Llorente and Javi Martinez, two superstars of the future for Spain, who both may not be with the club by the end of the season.

    HJK are Finland's most successful club with 24 league titles, including wins in the past three seasons.

    That is about all you will hear about HJK, as Bilbao are the heavy favorites to win this matchup that begins at the San Memes Stadium in Bilbao on Thursday.

Hearts vs. Liverpool

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    The matchup that English Premier League fans will have their eye on in the Europa League playoff round is Liverpool against Hearts of Midlothian from Scotland.

    After a shaky start to the EPL season, Liverpool will look to rebound from their loss to West Brom with a Europa League road triumph on Thursday at the Tynecastle Stadium in Edinburgh.

    Hearts finished fifth in Scotland last season, and an upset over the Reds would be one of the biggest wins in the club's recent history.

    Liverpool showed on Saturday in their match that they are vulnerable and their Scottish opponents could take advantage of that in the first leg of this matchup.

    Liverpool are definitely on upset alert but they should be able to handle their business and move on to the group stage.