Europa League: 6 Games to Watch on Matchday 1

Joe Tansey@JTansey90Featured ColumnistSeptember 17, 2012

Europa League: 6 Games to Watch on Matchday 1

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    On Thursday, the group stage of the Europa League gets underway with 24 matches.

    Unlike the Champions League, which has 32 clubs in the group stage, the Europa League has 48 clubs in their group stage.

    This year's group stage features storied clubs like Liverpool and Inter Milan as well as last season's winner, Atletico Madrid and runner-up Athletic Bilbao.

    Here are six matches that you should keep your eye on during Matchday 1 play on Thursday.

Udinese vs. Anzhi Makhachkala

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    In Group A, Italian side Udinese will host newly-rich Russian club Anzhi at the Stadio Friuli.

    Udinese were a missed penalty kick away from qualifying for the Champions League group stage but instead are stuck in the Europa League for the second straight season.

    Anzhi have been able to buy the star power to drive them to success and this season's Europa League will be the first time they get to prove that they are for real to the rest of the continent.

    The Russians may have been headed in the right direction before this season but with the hiring of Guus Hiddink as manager for the new season, they are now a formidable threat domestically as they currently sit third in the Russian Premier League.

Fenerbahce vs. Marseille

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    Both clubs squaring off in Istanbul on Thursday had rocky campaigns last season and are looking to turn things around.

    Fenerbahce were banned from the Champions League last season because of match-fixing allegations while Marseille finished 10th in Ligue 1.

    The Turkish club failed to make the group stage of the Champions League after losing to Spartak Moscow in the third round, which in turn demoted them to the Europa League.

    Marseille are just lucky to be playing in Europe this season, they won the French League Cup to qualify, and are off to a hot start domestically as they are perfect through five matches in Ligue 1 so far.

    For those of you familiar with the English Premier League, there may be some familiar faces on the pitch on Thursday as both Dirk Kuyt and Raul Meireles moved to Fenerbahce in the summer and should be in the starting lineup.

Copenhagen vs. Molde

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    The first match day in Group E brings us a Scandinavian derby between Copenhagen of Denmark and Molde of Norway.

    Copenhagen are the experienced club who seem to be playing somewhere in Europe every season.

    Molde are the upstarts of Scandinavian football as they have grown under the management of Ole Gunnar Solksjaer.

    As if this match did not have enough Scandinavian influence on it, the referee scheduled for this match is from Finland.

Sporting Lisbon vs. FC Basel

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    Last season, Sporting Lisbon were able to make it to the semifinals of the Europa League before being ousted by Athletic Bilbao.

    Sporting will look to continue the recent Iberian dominance in the competition with Spain and Portugal being the only countries represented in the semifinals in the last two seasons.

    Basel were the surprise club in the Champions League last season as they beat out Manchester United on the final day of group play to reach the round of 16.

    However, with that success came the exit of two of Basel's top players as Xherdan Shaqiri and Granit Xhaka both left the club for the Bundesliga.

    Those transfers put the Swiss champions in a rebuilding mode as they will try to develop a new set of European stars this season.

Inter Milan vs. Rubin Kazan

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    Inter Milan are one of the unlikely clubs to be playing in the Europa League this season after their sixth place finish in Serie A last year.

    Manager Andrea Stramaccioni has revamped the squad as they look to get back into the top of the Italian top flight.

    The Nerazzurri face a fairly easy road to the knockout phase in Group H and they start group play on Thursday with Russian side Rubin Kazan.

    Rubin Kazan also finished sixth domestically last season but they also won the Russian Cup to qualify for the Europa League.

    The Russians will be the biggest challenger to Inter in the group with Partizan Belgrade and Neftchi Baku being the other two clubs in the group.

Tottenham vs. Lazio

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    Thursday's Group J match at White Hart Lane may be the best matchup of all the matches going on during Matchday 1.

    Tottenham were robbed of a Champions League spot after Chelsea won the competition last season and were subjected to play in the Europa League instead.

    Manager Andre Villas-Boas has plenty of history with the Europa League as he captured the title two years ago with Porto.

    Spurs have revamped their squad under their new manager and have brought in plenty of players to reinforce the squad for European competition.

    Lazio finished fourth in Serie A last season and have an attack that can scare any defense.

    Miroslav Klose has found a home in Rome and has been their top goal scorer since moving from Bayern Munich last season.

    Also up front alongside the German are Mauro Zarate, Hernanes and Ederson, who can all score goals easily for Lazio.