Europa League Last 32 Draw: Who Liverpool Want and Who They Want to Avoid

Karl Matchett@@karlmatchettFeatured ColumnistDecember 19, 2012

NYON, SWITZERLAND - AUGUST 06:  UEFA general secretary Gianni Infantino displays the name of Liverpool FC during the UEFA Europa League play-off draw on August 6, 2010 in Nyon, Switzerland.  (Photo by Fabrice Coffrini/EuroFootball/Getty Images)
EuroFootball/Getty Images

Liverpool sealed their spot in the last 32 of the Europa League earlier this month with victory in Italy over Udinese, and the Reds will find out on Thursday, Dec. 20 who their opponents will be in the first knockout round when the competition resumes in February.

Having finished top of their group in the end after an up-and-down set of results for all four teams involved, the Reds will be seeded for the draw.

Though this will mean they avoid other group winners and half of the teams who exited the Champions League in third place, including the likes of Olympiacos, Lazio and Lyon, there are still a number of formidable opponents in the draw who Liverpool could be paired with.


Who to avoid

Three teams stand out immediately for Liverpool to hope to avoid.

Current holders of the Europa League, Atletico Madrid, placed only second in their group meaning they are a possible opponent of the Anfield club.

Atletico sit second in La Liga at present and have been performing exceptionally well this season with Radamel Falcao getting plenty of headlines for his goalscoring exploits. It's not just the Colombian striker who would be a danger though; Arda Turan and Filipe Luis have been performing superbly and Diego Godin has established a very strong partnership at the back with Miranda.

Inter Milan would also be a tough tie for the Reds to face.

The Italian side are themselves in something of a rebuild mode after two years without a league title, but they sit in second place in Serie A and still house many top-class players in their squad.

The experienced attacking trio of Antonio Cassano, Rodrigo Palacio and Diego Milito alone have plenty of goals between them and in Fredy Guarin and Esteban Cambiasso, they still possess a formidable midfield.

The third team Liverpool would most want to avoid is Russian outfit Zenit St Petersburg. As well as being a very strong side, a trip to the far east of Europe in February would be an unenviable interruption to domestic games.

Zenit sit third in the Russian Premier League, just five points off leaders CSKA Moscow, and have been in the news recently for rather less savoury reasons than they would like.


Best options

There really are no "easy" ties that Liverpool could be handed, but Brendan Rodgers might consider a pairing with any of Levante (Spain), Sparta Prague (Czech Republic) or Basel (Switzerland) as acceptable.

Levante are performing well again in La Liga, currently sitting sixth in the table, just a point behind the impressive Malaga, but they lack the depth in squad quality to really compete on two fronts. Towards the second half of the season they will have to likely decide which path to pursue, and even if they perform strongly at home, Liverpool would be confident of winning at Anfield.

Both Sparta and Basel have their qualities, but as teams from comparatively weaker domestic championships, Liverpool would expect to overcome either of them over two legs.

German duo Stuttgart and Borussia Mönchengladbach would also present interesting challenges to the Reds.

'Gladbach in particular have a very young, talented squad but are taking some time to gel and would present stern opposition. However neither they nor Stuttgart are playing consistently and sit in the higher mid-table spectrum of the Bundesliga at present.


Best of the rest

The remainder of the sides Liverpool could face can be broadly split into two groups: Those who might be tough but at least do not involve long travels to face and those who Rodgers would almost certainly prefer to not have to visit.

BATE Borisov and Dynamo Kyiv would mean long distance away fixtures and both sides have dropped out of the Champions League. It is unclear whether they would prioritise the Europa League, though playing against Liverpool always holds its own cachet.

Ajax have similarly dropped into the second continental competition and showed their quality against Premier League outfit Manchester CityBayer Leverkusen and Napoli are the other two sides the Reds could face.

Liverpool will be away in the first leg as they are seeded, before the home leg is played in late February.

The draw will also announce the ties for the Round of 16, meaning Liverpool will know from which pairing their opponents will come should they win their own last 32 clash.


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