UEFA Europa League 2012: Stars Who Will Play Key Role in Knockout Stage

Joseph Zucker@@JosephZuckerFeatured ColumnistNovember 24, 2012

MADRID, SPAIN - OCTOBER 28:  Falcao (C) of Club Atletico de Madrid duels for the ball with Anthony Annan (R) and Alejandro Arribas of Osasuna during the La Liga match between Club Atletico de Madrid and CA Osasuna at the Vicente Calderon Stadium on October 28, 2012 in Madrid, Spain.  (Photo by Jasper Juinen/Getty Images)
Jasper Juinen/Getty Images

The Europa League is a step below the Champions League, but that doesn't mean you won't see high-quality football.

This secondary competition can be a breeding ground for some of the best young talent in the world. Last year, Athletic Bilbao, with their young trio of Javi Martinez, Fernando Llorente and Iker Muniain, burst on the consciousness of many across Europe.

Martinez became Bayern Munich's record transfer this summer, and it's only a matter of time before Llorente and Muniain depart the San Mames.

While one of these players is likely to stay at his club in the long term, enjoy these other two stars at their respective clubs while you still can.

Radamel Falcao, Atletico Madrid

You can't talk about the Europa League without discussing the Colombian striker. There may not be a better pure finisher in the world than Falcao.

In the 2010-11 campaign with Porto, he scored 17 goals, breaking Jurgen Klinsmann's record of 14. Then the following season he found the back of the net 12 times with Atletico Madrid.

Not coincidentally, Porto won the Europa League in '10-11, with Atletico taking the crown last season.

He has been at the forefront for Atletico's fantastic league campaign this year. The club is five points ahead of crosstown rival Real Madrid, sitting comfortably in second place.

It's unlikely to last, but supporters would be ecstatic with yet another European triumph.

The only question is whether he stays with the club through January. He's one of the most sought-after players in Europe, and Atletico ownership has already put a price tag on the striker.

If he remains at the Calderon the entire year, you can count on Atletico Madrid going deep into the knockout stages.

Samuel Eto'o, Anzhi Makhachkala

The Russian club made waves when they made Cameroonian striker Samuel Eto'o the highest-paid player in the world.

Now the investment is starting to bear fruit.

Anzhi Makhachkala has already qualified for the knockout stage of the Europa League. It's an impressive accomplishment considering they were in a group with Udinese and Liverpool, and Eto'o has been the star performer.

Counting the qualifying stages, he's scored eight goals. He and Lacina Traore are forming a lethal partnership.

With an experienced manager like Guus Hiddink, Anzhi is ready to stamp their place in European football.

Lars Bender, Bayer Leverkusen

Lars Bender is a great combination of midfield destroyer, but one who is very competent on the ball.

The 23-year-old is the subject of constant transfer speculation, and rightfully so. Despite his youth, midfielder Bender has already become one of the fulcrums of Bayer Leverkusen.

The German club has already qualified runners-up in Group K, securing a spot in the Europa League.

Bender hasn't featured in some of the more recent European matchups, but Leverkusen will rely on him if they can get deep into the tournament. Unlike other fairly large clubs, they have been taking the competition very seriously.

The Europa League is a huge feather in the cap for them. If they're going to reach Amsterdam, Bender will be the engine that got them there.


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