Having been responsible for play-off shocks, Hannover 96 and ŠK Slovan Bratislava are relishing their debuts in the UEFA Europa League group stage.
Competing in Europe for the first time since 1992/93, Hannover's stock has risen exponentially since defeating two-time UEFA Cup winners Sevilla FC last month. "
Qualification for this stage might be considered a surprise but now we are regarded by many as one of the group favourites," said coach Mirko Slomka, whose side host R. Standard de Liège in Group B. "Now we have to prove it."
FC København, who reached the UEFA Champions League round of 16 last term, and FC Vorskla Poltava make up the section. Roland Nilsson, the former's coach, says his side's Ukrainian opponents will be something of an unknown quantity when they visit Parken Stadion. "We had to get start watching a few of their games, to see how they are playing and why they are winning games," he told UEFA.com.
Knocked out in the play-offs in each of the last two seasons, Slovan made it third time lucky by eliminating AS Roma and are savouring the prospect of opening Group F against Spain's Athletic Club. "
These games are a great experience for us, for the club to move a step forward," said coach Vladimír Weiss. "It is motivation for me and Slovan to compete with such a great team from one of the best leagues."
PSV Eindhoven are fancied to progress from Group C, but coach Fred Rutten would be happy to eschew the favourites' tag against Legia Warszawa. "Everyone expects a comfortable victory for us," he said. "Legia are solid and knocked out Spartak Moskva [in the play-offs]. We know they always score goals and they have an experienced squad. We've been warned."
In Group J, FC Schalke 04 start their campaign in Romania, venue for this season's final, against FC Steaua Bucureşti. Could it be an omen? "Of course you think about it briefly, but the road is very, very long," explained Schalke coach Ralf Rangnick. "We first have to succeed in this supposedly easy group."
Steaua's Roni Levy, whose team's home games are being staged in Cluj-Napoca, knows his charges will have to be on top of their game. "Schalke have very good players but we are playing at home. They are favourites, but we're here to play our game and maybe we will spring a surprise."
After dropping into the tournament from the UEFA Champions League, Udinese Calcio find themselves in a section which would not look out of place in Europe's premier club competition. "As you can see with Atlético, Celtic and Rennes, we probably have a harder group then some in the Champions League do," said Zebrette boss Francesco Guidolin ahead of Stade Rennais FC's visit in Group I.
The other Italian representatives, S.S. Lazio, host FC Vaslui in Group D with captain Tommaso Rocchi on the verge of a landmark achievement with the Biancocelesti. "I've scored 99 goals for Lazio and it would be really good to make it 100 tomorrow at the Stadio Olimpico in front of my supporters," explained the 33-year-old.
Anticipation is also building in Salonika, where PAOK FC tackle one of the competition favourites, Tottenham Hotspur FC. "We have nothing to lose and everything to gain," said PAOK skipper Stelios Malezas. "Let's not get overexcited by the fact that Tottenham are missing some players through injury. If a player is included in their squad, that means he is talented."
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