Europa League: Man Utd and Liverpool chase alternate route to Champions League football

© Lee Smith
The Europa League is welcomed back this week with English giants Manchester United, Tottenham and Liverpool all in action, along with Russian duo Lokomotiv Moscow and Krasnodar, Borussia Dortmund of Germany, and Gary Neville's struggling Valencia.

Lokomotiv Moscow kick off the midweek Europa League fixtures, traveling to Turkey to take on Fenerbahce on Tuesday in the first of 16 European clashes this week. The game has an added political context due to recent tensions between Russia and Turkey, however UEFA and Fenerbahce have assured the Moscow club that appropriate security measures have been put in place to avoid any incidents.

Lokomotiv, currently third in the Russian top flight, finished top of Group H back in December with a 3-0 win over Albanian side Skenderbeu Korce. Igor Cherevchenko's team drew twice in the group stage with Turkish side Besiktas, who sit four points behind league leaders Fenerbahce in the Turkish Super Lig.

Fenerbahce have failed to keep a clean sheet against Russian opposition in Europe, winning just one of the four encounters in their history. However, the club are unbeaten in five Europa League matches, while Lokomotiv are unbeaten in four away matches.

The bulk of the Europa League matches take place on Thursday, with German giants Borussia Dortmund hosting Portuguese side Porto in one of the many standout fixtures. Dortmund are comfortably second in the Bundesliga, although they remain eight points behind Bayern Munich, while Porto, who entered the last 32 after dropping out of the Champions League group phase, are two-time winners of the competition, with their last success coming in 2011.

The English Premier League is well represented, with Manchester United, Liverpool and Tottenham all in action on Thursday. United, who are also Champions League dropouts, travel to Denmark to take on FC Midtjylland, while Spurs and Liverpool face Fiorentina and FC Augsburg respectively.

Louis van Gaal remains under intense pressure at United, with his side's 2-1 defeat to Sunderland on the weekend only increasing the rumors of Jose Mourinho's impending arrival at Old Trafford. The Dutchman also admitted after the loss that winning the Europa League could be United's only route into next season's Champions League.

Liverpool and Spurs, meanwhile, recorded impressive league wins on Valentine's Day, and both will be full of confidence heading into their respective European encounters, despite the tricky opposition.

Russian side Krasnodar will look to continue their impressive Europa League run in their first leg tie against Czech side Sparta Prague. Oleg Kononov's side surprised many by topping Group B ahead of Borussia Dortmund, but will need to be at their best against Sparta, whose captain David Lafata is the second top scorer in the competition with five goals.

Spanish team Valencia, managed by former England and Manchester United full-back Gary Neville, will host Austrian side Rapid Vienna in one of the later kick-offs. The troubled giants have only won one league game since Neville's arrival and were dumped out of the Spanish cup by Barcelona last week, losing 8-1 on aggregate.

Meanwhile, Europa League holders Sevilla, who are also the competition's most successful side with four titles, face Norwegian club Molde.

Tuesday 16th February

Fenerbahce v Lokomotiv Moscow

Thursday 18th February

Borussia Dortmund v FC Porto
FC Midtjylland v Manchester United
Fiorentina v Tottenham
Anderlecht v Olympiakos
Sevilla v Molde
St Etienne v Basel
Villarreal v Napoli
FC Augsburg v Liverpool
FC Sion v Sporting Braga
Galatasaray v Lazio
Marseille v Athletic Bilbao
Shakhtar Donetsk v Schalke
Sparta Prague v FK Krasnodar
Sporting v Bayer Leverkusen
Valencia v Rapid Vienna

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