Paris (AFP) - As the Europa League group stage gets underway on Thursday, AFP Sports picks five of the games to look out for in the opening round of matches:
- Before coming up against Russia's Rubin Kazan and Sion of Switzerland, Liverpool begin their Group B campaign with a tricky trip to France to play Bordeaux. The Reds make the journey on the back of chastening defeats to West Ham United and Manchester United in the Premier League, and manager Brendan Rodgers could do with a much-improved display, especially after performing so poorly in Europe last season. A year ago, Liverpool finished third in their Champions League group behind Real Madrid and Basel before being eliminated from the Europa League by Besiktas in the round of 32. The English side are without captain Jordan Henderson, who has travelled to the United States to seek advice on a heel injury. Adam Lallana and Daniel Sturridge might feature, however, against a Bordeaux side who are not the force they once were but are fresh from a respectable 2-2 draw at Paris Saint-Germain on Friday. The sides last met in France in the Champions League group stage in 2006/07, when Rafa Benitez's Liverpool won 1-0. However, much has changed since then and in the spring Bordeaux moved into a new 42,000-seat stadium that will host games at Euro 2016.
Tottenham Hotspur (ENG) v Qarabag (AZE)
- The other English side in the group stage, Tottenham Hotspur, face what on paper looks like their easiest tie at home to Qarabag of Azerbaijan before also taking on Anderlecht and Monaco in Group J. Spurs boss Mauricio Pochettino is likely to heavily rotate his squad for the game but might be tempted to hand a start to Harry Kane, who has yet to score in the Premier League this season but netted seven times in the Europa League last season. The champions of Azerbaijan, Qarabag have already visited the British Isles this season in Champions League qualifying, losing to Celtic.
Ajax (NED) v Celtic (SCO)
- Celtic may not have qualified for the Champions League group stage, but the draw for the Europa League handed them some glamour ties to look forward to in Group A, starting away to Ajax. "Last year we progressed in the Europa League to play Inter Milan in the knockout stages, and the group this year is a Champions League group in all but name," Celtic manager Ronny Deila told the club's website. "We know it's going to be difficult but we've got the players here to definitely believe we can get through." Like Celtic, Ajax -- coached by former Rangers player Frank de Boer -- were eliminated in qualifying for the Champions League but they are unbeaten domestically and sit top of the Dutch Eredivisie. These sides met in the Champions League group stage two years ago, with Ajax winning 1-0 at the Amsterdam Arena. Fenerbahce and Norwegian champions Molde complete Group A and Ajax's Nick Viergever believes the meeting with the Hoops could prove decisive. "We need to win against Celtic because Fenerbahce are the favourites. They have spent a lot of money on their squad recently so that means realistically there is probably only one other place," he was quoted as saying by the Daily Record.
Borussia Dortmund (GER) v FC Krasnodar (RUS)
- Bayern Munich chairman Karl-Heinz Rummenigge said this week that Borussia Dortmund "belong" in the Champions League but Thomas Tuchel's side are in the Europa League this season. They begin their Group C campaign at home to Russian side FC Krasnodar and will be bidding to continue their fine start to the season. Dortmund have won every game so far, including beating Austria's Wolfsberger and Odd of Norway in Europa League qualifying and recording four wins out of four in the Bundesliga.
Fiorentina (ITA) v Basel (SUI)
- Basel failed to qualify for the Champions League group stage so the Swiss champions can instead focus on trying to reach the final of the Europa League, which will be played in their own stadium, St Jakob-Park. Their opening game in Group I is away to Fiorentina in Italy, which means a reunion with Paulo Sousa. The Portuguese coached Basel to the Swiss title before leaving for Florence in the summer.