Former major UEFA club competition winners Tottenham Hotspur FC, FC Dynamo Kyiv, ACF Fiorentina, Eintracht Frankfurt and Feyenoord enter the UEFA Europa League fray as the race for the group stage nears its conclusion.
There are 30 places up for grabs as the action begins on Thursday in Aktobe, Kazakhstan at 15.00CET, running until around 23.30CET when the final whistle is blown in Estoril and Seville. In between, unknown quantities will seek accession to new heights while some of European football's traditional heavyweights will be eager to avoid potential pitfalls.
Tottenham, Sevilla FC and Feyenoord certainly come in the latter category as the trio seek record-equalling third UEFA Cup/UEFA Europa League successes. Sevilla began their campaign in the third qualifying round with a 9-1 triumph over FK Mladost Podgorica, but may find the going harder against a WKS Śląsk Wrocław side who stunned Club Brugge KV last time out.
Tottenham, under André Villas-Boas – a winner with FC Porto in 2010/11 – take on FC Dinamo Tbilisi, whom they beat 6-2 on aggregate in the 1973/74 UEFA Cup third round. FC Kuban Krasnodar await Feyenoord, and the Dutch team's captain Stefan de Vrij is not underestimating the UEFA debutants. "They beat Motherwell [in the last round] without conceding and finished fifth in Russia last season. That says something about their quality."
Lithuania's VMFD Žalgiris also caught the eye last time out, knocking out KKS Lech Poznań, and are lining up another giant-killing as they travel to FC Salzburg. Albania's FK Kukësi have similar ambitions as they host Trabzonspor AŞ buoyed by the scalp of FC Metalurh Donetsk. Žalgiris and Kukës are among several UEFA competition newcomers and one is guaranteed in the group stage as two, FC Pasching and Estoril Praia, begin their tie in Portugal.
HNK Rijeka, nine games unbeaten at the start of 2013/14, host VfB Stuttgart while the man who guided Sevilla to back-to-back titles in 2006 and 2007, Juande Ramos, leads FC Dnipro Dnipropetrovsk at JK Nõmme Kalju. UEFA Cup winners in 1979/80, Eintracht return to the European scene after a seven-year absence in Azerbaijan against Qarabağ FK, 2011 finalists SC Braga are away to Romania's European first-timers CS Pandurii Târgu Jiu and Fiorentina face a tough trip to Grasshopper Club.
The ties conclude with the second legs on 29 August. The winners will join Maccabi Tel-Aviv FC – who have recieved a bye – seven automatic qualifiers and the ten losing sides from the UEFA Champions League play-offs in the group stage, commencing on 19 September. The group stage draw will take place in Monaco on Friday 30 August from 13.00CET.
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