UEFA Europa League 2012: Stars to Watch During Thursday's Key Matches

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UEFA Europa League 2012: Stars to Watch During Thursday's Key Matches
Clive Brunskill/Getty Images

Another action-packed day of Europa League play is scheduled for Thursday with several key matches on tap as the group stage winds toward a close. The results will have a major impact on which clubs put themselves in prime position to advance.

As teams prepare to battle for critical points, let's take a look at three players that fans should keep an eye on throughout the day. It should be a wild day of matches, but that's what makes the European tournaments so intriguing. Anything can happen.

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Mathieu Valbuena (Marseille)

Marseille is currently tied with Borussia Monchengladbach for second place in Group C, meaning there's a good chance the head-to-head encounter on Thursday will decide which team will move on. The French side has the home-field edge.

While Marseille uses a pretty balanced offensive approach, one player who has stood out throughout the campaign has been Valbuena. The creative midfielder has developed into a vital piece for the team's attack over the past two seasons.

When the two teams met a couple of weeks ago, Monchengladbach did a nice job of keeping him under control, which is why Marseille was unable to create many chances in a 2-0 loss. He'll need to have a better showing in the rematch.

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Samuel Eto'o (Anzhi Makhachkala)

Eto'o leads Anzhi Makhachkala into a clash with Liverpool in search of three points, which would give the Russian side the Group A lead. The Reds won the first game between the teams thanks to a goal from Stewart Downing.

The 31-year-old striker hasn't missed a beat, scoring 14 goals in 21 matches across all competitions this season. Even at an age where some players begin a gradual decline, he's still showing off plenty of trademark quickness and his usual goal-scoring instincts.

Eto'o has been out of form as of late, however. He hasn't scored in his last four appearances, the longest stretch of the season. Liverpool's back line should be expecting him to get a lot of touches early as Anzhi tries to get him going right away.

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Clint Dempsey (Tottenham)

A string of three straight draws to open group play has left Tottenham in third place in Group J. What Spurs need—and this goes for Premier League play as well—is for an attacking option to step up, especially in key moments.

Dempsey has worn several different hats since joining the squad, from starter to super sub, but has settled into the stating lineup over the last three matches. It's been clear he's starting to get more comfortable, and the goals are sure to follow.

The American had a lot of success in Europa League play for Fulham last season. Look for him to rekindle some of that magic on Thursday as Tottenham move one step closer to advancement. He's due for a breakout match.

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