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The UEFA Europa League will receive a major dose of star quality when the third qualifying round kicks off on Thursday, with the likes of Liverpool FC, FC Internazionale Milano and last season's beaten finalists Athletic Club entering the fray.
Brendan Rogers' first competitive game as Liverpool manager following his arrival from Swansea City AFC will take him to Belarus, where FC Gomel are hoping to spring an upset against the five-time European champions, who also won three UEFA Cups.
"It sounds stupid, but we will only know how ready we are after we have played our matches against Liverpool," said Gomel coach Oleg Kubarev. "We have only been putting this team together for three years. Obviously, our opponents are of a much higher standard than us, but, regardless, we have to go out on the pitch and try our best."
Two Croatian sides have been set daunting tasks on the same night. HNK Hajduk Split are at home against Inter, while NK Slaven Koprivnica head to Bilbao to meet the side that lost 3-0 to Club Atlético de Madrid in last season's UEFA Europa League final in Bucharest. Koprivnica coach Roy Ferenčina said: "We are delighted to have the opportunity to play against one of the best clubs in Europe. They played in the Europa League final last season so it will be a big challenge for us."
Other sides to watch include Greek debutants Asteras Tripolis FC, who are up against CS Marítimo of Portugal, and Guus Hiddink's FC Anzhi Makhachkala, who have been paired with Vitesse – led by the experienced Dutch coach's former PSV Eindhoven assistant, Fred Rutten. The Russian club have been benefiting from the presence of 31-year-old Samuel Eto'o, who has scored two goals in two qualifying games this season.
UEFA Champions League contenders last term, FC Viktoria Plzeň and APOEL FC remain in the hunt, playing at Ruch Chorzów and at home against Norwegian side Aalesunds FK respectively. Turkey's Eskişehirspor, meanwhile, will welcome Olympique de Marseille, while fans in the Republic of Ireland have a real feast in store as Saint Patrick's Athletic FC bring Hannover 96 to Dublin.
The draw for the play-off round will take place on Friday 10 August, the day after the third qualifying round ties conclude, with AZ Alkmaar, PFC CSKA Moskva, S.S. Lazio, Newcastle United FC, Sporting Clube de Portugal and VfB Stuttgart among the sides lying in wait for the next batch of qualifiers.
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