Braga vs Fiorentina may be the tie of the round, but Lazio have a tricky task ahead, while recent encounters will add some spice to AEK Larnaca's meeting with Dnipro-1.
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Braga are taking on Fiorentina, Lazio are fighting for civic pride and Dnipro-1 are keen to show how quickly they are learning in the UEFA Europa Conference League knockout round play-offs.
In this piece presented by Enterprise, we pick out some key talking points ahead of the first knockout fixtures of the new year.
Knockout round play-off fixtures: 16 & 23 February
Who is through to the last 16?
AZ Alkmaar (NED)
İstanbul Başakşehir (TUR)
Slovan Bratislava (SVK)
West Ham (ENG)
What to look out for
Braga beckons for Fiorentina
Two of the top Thursday-night scorers this season will come together in the round of 32. Vitinha hit four for Braga in the Europa League group stage in the autumn before leaving for Marseille. The Portuguese side nonetheless finished third in their section despite picking up ten points. Luka Jović hit the same number for the Viola as they were denied top spot in Group A, despite finishing level on points with İstanbul Başakşehir.
Braga and Fiorentina offer significant pedigree. The Arsenalistas were losing finalists to compatriots Porto in the 2011 Europa League final in Dublin, while Fiorentina were Cup Winners' Cup winners in 1961 (and Europa League semi-finalists in 2014/15). The Europa Conference League does not aspire to being a competition for titanic clashes but – this season, this round – Braga vs Fiorentina may be about as big as a tie gets.
Lazio aim to keep the trophy in Rome
Lazio have a right to feel moderately disappointed after missing out on a Europa League knockout phase place after finishing third in a group stage section in which all four sides picked up eight points. However, dropping down into the Conference League means that they can aim to keep the trophy in the Eternal City for another year, Roma having won the inaugural edition last year.
Their play-off round opponents CFR Cluj met Lazio in the 2019/20 Europa League group stage (under their current coach Dan Petrescu, who played in Italy for Foggia and Genoa), winning 2-1 at home but going down 1-0 in Italy. Local papers are not necessarily thrilled by the Railwaymen's draw (Fanatik called Lazio "impossible opponents", Pro Spot called them "the most difficult opponents possible" while Gazeta Sporturilor bemoaned CFR's "terrible bad luck"), but if CFR can avoid a heavy first-leg loss they have a chance, having conceded only once in their last six European home games (W5 L1).
Dnipro-1 and AEK face quick reunion
In their first UEFA club competition campaign, Dnipro have played just eight European matches so far and are already repeating themselves. The Ukrainian Premier League front-runners lost 5-1 on aggregate to AEK Larnaca in this season's Europa League play-offs, and are meeting the Cypriot side again after AEK parachuted into the Europa Conference League.
Before their first encounters, Dnipro-1's coach, former Shakhtar midfielder, Oleksandr Kucher said: "AEK are an extremely experienced team that has played a lot of European football. There are plenty of internationals in the team and they have an experienced Spanish coach [José Luis Oltra]." That still applies, but AEK may find Dnipro-1 to be more sprightly. They boast the competition's top scorer in five-goal Anton Dovbyk and took ten points from their group stage games, including home and away wins against another Cypriot side, Apollon.
Where is the 2023 UEFA Europa Conference League final being played?
The Eden Arena in Prague, Czechia, has been selected to host this season's Europa Conference League final on 7 June 2023.
The 2013 UEFA Super Cup took place at the Eden Arena, with Bayern defeating Chelsea 5-4 on penalties following a 2-2 draw over 120 minutes, and a showpiece game also went the distance two years later in the 2015 Under-21 EURO final, Sweden seeing off Portugal 4-3 on spot kicks.