Europa League: previews and predictions for the knockout play-offs | Europa League

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The Europa League is a little different this season. The eight runners-up from the Europa League groups are playing the eight third-placed teams from the Champions League groups, with a place in the last 16 of the Europa League at stake. The first legs of the play-offs are being held this Thursday, with the second legs to follow next week.

Barcelona v Napoli, 5.45pm (GMT)

This is without a doubt the heavyweight tie of the round. Barcelona dropped into the Europa League after finishing third in their Champions League group. They won just two of their six games – both 1-0 against Dynamo Kyiv – but have bolstered their squad in January. Pierre-Emerick Aubameyang, Adama Traoré and Ferran Torres improve Xavi’s attacking options, though the trio’s inclusion in their Europa League squad means Dani Alves misses out.

Barcelona have issues in defense, with Ronald Araújo ruled out through injury and his fellow center-back Clément Lenglet also a doubt. Gerard Piqué was sent off in their 2-2 draw with local rivals Espanyol on Sunday but he is available and likely to start. However, Samuel Umtiti, Alejandro Balde, Sergi Roberto and Ansu Fati are sidelined.

Like Alves at Barcelona, ​​Axel Tuanzebe has been left out of Napoli’s squad for the Europa League, compounding what has been a disappointing loan spell for the Manchester United defender. Luciano Spalletti is expected to be without attacking duo Hirving Lozano and Matteo Politano, but Victor Osimhen has scored four goals in just 168 minutes of European action this season and he will be hoping to fire Napoli into the last 16. Prediction: Barcelona 1-2 Napoli

Zenit St Petersburg v Real Betis, 5.45pm

Zenit enjoyed a successful return to action after the two-month winter break in Russia, winning the Atlantic Cup in Portugal last week. They lost the prolific Iranian striker Sardar Azmoun to Bayer Leverkusen in January. Yuri Alberto has arrived at the club to replace Azmoun, but the 20-year-old is unlikely to displace Artem Dzyuba up front. Stanislav Kritsyuk is ruled out for Zenit, who will also give Dejan Lovren a late fitness test.

Real Betis will be missing the injured Claudio Bravo and Martin Montoya for the first leg in Russia, but Manuel Pellegrini’s main concern comes in midfield. Sergio Canales played no part in their last two games – wins over Rayo Vallecano in the Copa Del Rey and at Levante in La Liga – due to Covid-19, while Nabil Fekir is suspended. Pellegrini will hope Canales returns in time. If without his two star creators, Pellegrini may ask 40-year-old Joaquín, who has started every Europa League game for Betis this season, to deputise in the No 10 role. Prediction: Zenit 1-1 Real Betis

Joaquín playing for Real Betis.
Joaquín playing for Real Betis. Photograph: Jose Luis Contreras / AP

Borussia Dortmund v Rangers, 5.45pm

Borussia Dortmund dropped out of the Champions League after finishing third in their group – missing out due to their worse head-to-head record with Sporting CP – and are now one of the favorites to win the Europa League. Marco Rose will be without goal machine Erling Haaland, who hasn’t featured since last month’s 3-2 win at Hoffenheim. Donyell Malen is likely to deputise for Haaland should the Norwegian miss out. Thomas Meunier missed Dortmund’s 3-0 win over Union Berlin at the weekend and will be assessed before the Rangers game. If he is not fit, Manuel Akanji may deputise at right-back again.

Rangers have reached the last 16 of the Europa League for the past two seasons, but Dortmund will offer them a stern test. Giovanni van Bronckhorst is unable to call upon Ianis Hagi and may be without Leon Balogun, who lasted just 15 minutes in last week’s win over Hibs. January arrivals Amad Diallo and Aaron Ramsey are expected to start alongside Ryan Kent in support of Alfredo Morelos in Van Bronckhort’s favored 4-2-3-1 setup. The last time these two clubs met in Europe – in the Uefa Cup in the 1999-2000 season – Van Bronckhorst was in the Rangers team.

Prediction: Dortmund 2-0 Rangers

Sheriff v Braga, 5.45pm

Sheriff are gearing up for their first competitive game in over two months. They worked wonders to finish third in a Champions League group containing Real Madrid, Inter and Shakhtar Donetsk, but their lack of match fitness is likely to cost them against Braga, especially in the first leg in Tiraspol. The Moldovan champions are without suspended pair Edmund Addo and Gustavo Dulanto, whose Champions League bans are carried into the Europa League.

Braga will be missing key center-back Diogo Leite, who is suspended, and the injured pair Lucas Mineiro and Nuno Sequeira. Braga will also be without Galeno in Europe for the first time this season. The 24-year-old winger joined Porto last month as a replacement for Luis Díaz. Teenager Rodrigo Gomes is likely to make his Europa League bow in Moldova in place of Díaz. Prediction: Sheriff 1-2 Braga

Rodrigo Gomes (center) in action during Sporting Braga's 2-1 win over Pacos de Ferreira earlier this month.
Rodrigo Gomes (center) in action for Braga earlier this month. Photograph: Sipa US / Alamy

RB Leipzig v Real Sociedad, 8pm

RB Leipzig arrive in the Europa League having finished third in a Champions League group containing Manchester City, PSG and Club Brugge. The club sacked Jesse Marsch in December and return to European action under the management of Domenico Tedesco. He will be missing Marcel Halstenberg, who is yet to feature for RB Leipzig this season due to injury. Tedesco could rotate but, considering this is his first European game at Leipzig, he will want to lay down an early marker against Real Sociedad.

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Martin Zubimendi is banned for Real Sociedad, but Igor Zubeldia – who sat out their game against Granada at the weekend due to a suspension of his own – is available. That said, Zubeldia will probably be on the bench, with Robin Le Normand partnering Aritz Elustondo at the heart of the defense. Real Sociedad’s injury woes have eased considerably in recent weeks, but Ander Barrenetxea, Carlos Fernández and Nacho Monreal are sidelined.

Real Sociedad defenders Aritz Elustondo (center) and Robin Le Normand (right) go up for a header.
Real Sociedad defenders Aritz Elustondo (center) and Robin Le Normand (right) go up for a header. Photograph: Jorge Guerrero / AFP / Getty

Rafinha came off the bench for La Real at the weekend and scored their second goal in a 2-0 win over Granada. He may start behind Alexander Isak at the expense of David Silva. Alexander Sorloth is on loan at La Real from RB Leipzig, though there is no suggestion he will miss out. The Norwegian will likely be on the bench, however, with Isak first choice up front. Prediction: RB Leipzig 2-0 Real Sociedad

Porto v Lazio, 8pm

Porto will be disappointed to be out of the Champions League, having reached the quarter-finals last season. They go into this tie without goalkeeper Agustín Marchesín and left-back Wendell, who are both suspended. Luis Díaz joined Liverpool last month and his replacement, Galeno, is yet to make his full debut. There is little to suggest that will change on Thursday, with Otávio and Fábio Vieira now their first choice wide players.

Maurizio Sarri used Sergej Milinkovic-Savic sparingly in the group stage but perhaps the Lazio manager was saving him for the knockout phase. Toma Basic, Lucas Leiva and Luis Alberto have been Sarri’s go-to midfield in Europe and he may elect to reward that trio in Porto. In attack, Mattia Zaccagni and Felipe Anderson may flank Ciro Immobile, with the experienced Pedro used from the bench if required. Prediction: Porto 2-1 Lazio

Sevilla v Dinamo Zagreb, 8pm

Sevilla should be playing in the Champions League considering the quality in their squad, but they finished below Lille and Salzburg in their group and dropped into their usual haunt. They will hope to maintain their superb record in the Europa League – they have won the competition six times – but will be without Érik Lamela, Suso, Gonzalo Montiel and Joan Jordan for the first leg of this tie. With Jesús Corona, Jesús Navas and Lucas Ocampos all doubts, Jules Koundé may be needed at right-back, which would see Karim Rekik partner Diego Carlos at the heart of the defense. Anthony Martial made his professional debut in the Europa League for Lyon a decade ago and he is back in the competition after his loan move from Manchester United in January.

Dinamo Zagreb have little in the way of injury concerns, but travel to Seville without midfielder Josip Misic, who is suspended. Marko Tolic is in line to cover in the middle of the park. Mislav Orsic, who scored a hat-trick against Tottenham in the competition last season, rejected a move to Burnley last month and that is a huge boost for the Croatian side. Dinamo have used a back three since the start of December and should continue with that shape in Spain. Prediction: Sevilla 3-1 Dinamo Zagreb

Atalanta v Olympiacos, 8pm

Atalanta started brightly in their Champions League group, earning a 2-2 draw at Villarreal and then beating Young Boys at home, but they faded and had to settle for Europa League football. They are now without Robin Gosens, who departed for Inter last month, and that should see Joakim Maehle continue at left wing-back. The bigger concern is the absence of Duvan Zapata, who is ruled out until April.

He is joined on the sidelines by Aleksey Miranchuk, with center-back José Luis Palomino also a fitness concern for the home side. Luis Muriel may have been saved for league duties, so Josip Ilicic and Jeremie Boga could lead the charge, with Ruslan Malinovskyi – who came off the bench and scored a superb goal against Juventus at the weekend – featuring in support. Juan Musso was suspended for that 1-1 draw with Juve but is set to return.

Ruslan Malinovskyi (second left) celebrates with his Atalanta teammates after scoring from 30 yards against Juventus.
Ruslan Malinovskyi (second left) celebrates with his Atalanta teammates after scoring from 30 yards against Juventus. Photograph: Xinhua / Shutterstock

Kostas Manolas returned to Olympiacos last month after eight years in Italy with Roma and Napoli, and he will make his second Europa League debut for the club on Thursday, lining up alongside fellow center-back Sokratis. Garry Rodrigues is injured, and Pape Abou Cissé and Pierre Kunde may not be thrown in at the deep end given they are yet to play for Olympiacos since returning from the Africa Cup of Nations. Prediction: Atalanta 1-1 Olympiacos

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