Europa League group stage concludes with small sides in focus


Berlin, Dec. 9, (GNA/dpa) – The likes of Qarabag, Slovan Liberec and Lech Poznan could be celebrating surprise berths in the Europa League last 32 on Thursday as the group stage comes to a close.

Many big names such as Borussia Dortmund, Liverpool, Napoli and Villarreal are already through to the knockout stages but who finishes top is still up for grabs in some groups while Fiorentina, Ajax and Augsburg still have lots to do to even qualify.

Most neutrals would love to see an underdog get through and Azerbaijan’s Qarabag have half a chance in what looked like an impossible Group J.

Qarabag are bottom on four points but if they pull off a win in Anderlecht and Monaco fail to beat Tottenham Hotspur, progression is theirs. They defeated Anderlecht at home so victory in Belgium is not impossible, even if their coach is far from hopeful.

“We have a chance of qualifying, but, frankly, it is only a slim one,” Gurban Gurbanov said. “It will be very difficult – we don’t have enough experience at this level.”

Tottenham have already qualified for the knockout stages and need just a point to finish top and gain a better seeding in Monday’s draw for February’s last 32, when the eight Champions League third-placed sides join the party.

Liberec of the Czech Republic must beat Marseille at home to be assured of second behind Braga in Group F while Denmark’s Midtjylland can qualify in Group D and one of Poland’s Poznan and Belenenses from Portugal have a chance of overhauling Fiorentina in Group I.

Former European champions Ajax look in the biggest danger of missing out having also failed to make the Champions League in August. The Dutch must beat already qualified Molde in Amsterdam and hope Fenerbahce lose at home to eliminated Celtic in Group A.

Group H is wide open with Besiktas, Sporting Lisbon and Lokomotiv Moscow all still in the running for qualification and first place.

Group B leaders Liverpool are through and travel to second-placed Sion requiring a point to end up first but will be without the injured Daniel Sturridge again.

Victory at Greece’s Asteras is a must for Schalke if they are to guarantee top spot in Group K having already progressed.

Dortmund have 10 points in Group C but even a win at home to PAOK might not be enough for top spot with fellow qualifiers Krasnodar above them on head-to-head and visiting bottom side Qabala.

Villarreal need to win at Viktoria Plzen to guarantee first place in Group E. However, their minds will also be on Sunday’s Liga clash against Real Madrid.

The yellows are level on 12 points with Rapid Vienna – who will host Dinamo Minsk and have already also sealed progression – but are above them on head-to-head results.

Coach Marcelino Garcia might be tempted to rest several regulars with the Real clash in mind.

“They are both important matches. I will try to pick the best team for both games, knowing that we have to win both,” he said.

He will be without injury victims Mario Gaspar, Jaume Costa and Jonathan dos Santos.

Also Thursday, Athletic Bilbao will finish their successful Group L campaign at home to bottom team AZ Alkmaar, having already clinched top spot.

Bundesliga strugglers Augsburg can join them in going through but must better their 3-1 home defeat by Partizan Belgrade when they travel to Serbia, with the hosts looking favourites to progress instead.

Lazio have secured first place and Saint-Etienne have also qualified from Group G as the two sides meet in a meaningless game in France.

GNA

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