The first Spanish, Italian, French and German sides to compete in European competition this term will open their campaigns on Thursday as the UEFA Europa League third qualifying round begins this week.
The 2009/10 winners, Club Atlético de Madrid, are joined by US Città di Palermo, Stade Rennais FC and 1. FSV Mainz 05 as the 48-team group stage comes a step closer, and all will be anxious to avoid a sluggish start. Blocking their respective paths to the play-offs will be Norway's Strømsgodset TF, Switzerland's FC Thun, Georgia's Metalurgi Rustavi and CS Gaz Metan Mediaş of Romania, a quartet of teams hoping to make big headlines by springing an upset.
England's Fulham FC, beaten finalists in 2010, have been involved since the first qualifying round and the UEFA Respect Fair Play entrants will look to follow up successes against NSÍ Runavík and Crusaders FC with a positive result at RNK Split. The other Premier League entrants, Stoke City FC, are also up against Croatian opposition, with HNK Hajduk Split kicking off their bid in the Potteries.
It is 37 years since Stoke last played in Europe, and the chance to end that wait in such style is proving a major fillip for manager Tony Pulis. "It's a fantastic draw for us and an occasion that every single one of us is looking forward to," he said. "
Hajduk Split are a hugely renowned football club with a great tradition in European competitions, and it's also a lovely city for our supporters to go out and visit."
Other notable names entering the fray at this stage include 1990/91 European Champion Clubs' Cup winners FK Crvena zvezda – who visit Latvia's FK Ventspils – and Bursapor, who competed in the UEFA Champions League group stage last season. The 2009/10 Turkish champions will kick off at home against FC Gomel of Belarus.
The survivors at this stage also include some sides representing UEFA's smallest associations. Liechtenstein's FC Vaduz turned the tables on FK Vojvodina to tee up a visit to Hapoel Tel-Aviv FC on Thursday, while KR Reykjavík overcame another side who played UEFA Champions League football last season – MŠK Žilina – and now go head to head with FC Dinamo Tbilisi, who won the 1980/81 UEFA Cup Winners' Cup.
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