Uncompromising defenders, cultured midfielders and goal-hungry strikers; this season's UEFA Europa League has showcased an eclectic blend of talented players. With the round of 32 first legs on Thursday, UEFA.com previews a quartet of individual duels likely to play a pivotal role in the outcome of their respective ties.
Stefan Kiessling v Óscar Cardozo
Bayer 04 Leverkusen v SL Benfica
The Eagles' No7 Óscar boasts an excellent track record in the UEFA Europa League, his 13 goals putting him joint-third in the competition's all-time rankings. He was also on target twice in Benfica's 2-0 UEFA Champions League Group G win over FC Spartak Moskva in November.
Shadowing the Paraguay forward is opposite number Stefan Kiessling, who struck seven times en route to the 2007/08 UEFA Cup quarter-finals. Despite failing to make his mark this time round in Europe, the 29-year-old has weighed in with a joint league-leading 14 Bundesliga goals.
Juan Arango v Hernanes
VfL Borussia Mönchengladbach v S.S. Lazio
"One of the greatest left-footed players in the world," according to Gladbach coach Lucien Favre, artful winger Juan Arango has earned a reputation in Germany for scoring spectacular goals, yet the Venezuela captain is every bit as potent as a provider. His one goal in the group stage was a vital added-time equaliser at Olympique de Marseille.
Equally inventive and daringly flamboyant is Lazio's Hernanes, who started every game of his team's unbeaten Group J campaign. So often the key to unlock an obstinate defence, the two-footed Brazilian playmaker also has an eloquent touch in front of goal, as demonstrated by his eight Serie A strikes this term.
Aleksandr Hleb v Dirk Kuyt
FC BATE Borisov v Fenerbahçe SK
Two players who flourished in contrasting styles in the Premier League meet again when BATE lock horns with Fenerbahçe. Fleet-footed former Arsenal FC schemer Hleb returned to first club BATE in July last year and started all six of the team's UEFA Champions League group games to lift his tally of European club competition appearances to 88 – a Belarusian record.
One year his senior, 32-year-old Dirk Kuyt enjoyed a memorable six-year stint with Liverpool FC, which ended last summer when the he moved to Istanbul. A forward by trade, Kuyt became something of a cult hero at Anfield as much for his indefatigable wing play as for his goalscoring. The Dutch international has continued to demonstrate those qualities at Fenerbahçe, not least in Europe, with two goals in the group stage.
Jaroslav Plašil v Andriy Yarmolenko
FC Dynamo Kyiv v FC Girondins de Bordeaux
The tie between Bordeaux and Dynamo promises an intriguing midfield battle as the exuberance of youth clashes with wisdom. Captain of the Ligue 1 side and a veteran of four international tournaments, Jaroslav Plašil, 31, will pit his wits against fellow winger Andriy Yarmolenko, who boasts six European goals and nine in 28 appearances for Ukraine.
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