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What to look out for in the UEFA Europa Conference League knockout round play-offs

Union SG and Bodø/Glimt size up a couple more giants and tight contests (almost) guaranteed – looking forward to the return of the UEFA Europa Conference League?

Conference League Ones to Watch: Group stage stars

The UEFA Europa Conference League knockout round play-offs have thrown up some thrillers over the past two seasons, and it's likely to be more of the same in 2023/24. Emerging powers Union SG and Bodø/Glimt have an opportunity to add a couple more big names to their hit lists in the shape of Frankfurt and Ajax as the competition promises to return with a bang on 15 February. 

In this piece presented by Enterprise Rent-A-Car, we pick out some key talking points ahead of the first legs. Remember: Every mission matters.

Early kick-offs (18:45 CET)
Sturm Graz vs Slovan Bratislava
Union SG vs Frankfurt
Olympiacos vs Ferencváros
Molde vs Legia

Late kick-offs (21:00 CET)
Servette vs Ludogorets
Real Betis vs Dinamo Zagreb
Ajax vs Bodø/Glimt
Maccabi Haifa vs Gent

Who is through to the last 16?

Aston Villa (ENG)
Club Brugge (BEL)
Fenerbahçe (TUR)
Fiorentina (ITA)
LOSC Lille (FRA)
Maccabi Tel Aviv (ISR)
PAOK (GRE)
Viktoria Plzeň (CZE)

Union SG plot giant-killing

Alexander Blessin praised his Union SG side for showing Liverpool "no respect" when the Belgian high-fliers beat the Reds 2-1 on Matchday 6 of the UEFA Europa League. The 50-year-old will want a similar attitude from his charges when they begin their knockout campaign against another big hitter coached by a German compatriot, 2021/22 Europa League winners Frankfurt. 

Union SG certainly have cause for confidence, having overcome Union Berlin en route to the Europa League quarter-finals last season. It is something not lost on Frankfurt boss Dino Toppmöller, who said: "They have quickly made a name for themselves on the European stage." Some achievement for a side that only returned to the top flight in 2021 after 48 years away.

Highlights: Union SG 2-1 Liverpool

Bodø/Glimt take aim at Ajax

Like Union SG, Bodø/Glimt are another team that have emerged from relative obscurity to make their mark on the continent over the past few campaigns. The Norwegian minnows have racked up victories over the likes of Roma (6-1!), Celtic, AZ and Beşiktaş, and this is the third successive season that they will grace the Europa Conference League knockout stages.

Bodø/Glimt's consistent success has come despite a steady stream of key players exiting, but they face their biggest challenge yet to overcome departures after losing Amahl Pellegrino, who scored over 60 goals across the past two seasons, and Faris Moumbagna, who managed 24 in his only full campaign at the club. The likes of Albert Grønbæk and Patrick Berg will look to shoulder more of the goalscoring burden as four-time European champions Ajax, who were bottom of the Eredivisie at one stage during a difficult autumn, provide their next opposition.

Group stage highlights: Bodø/Glimt 6-1 Roma

Prepare for tight contests

There is perhaps a perception that teams dropping down from the Europa League will be a bit stronger in the knockout round play-offs, but the competition's first two seasons did not bear that out – both times, only three made the last 16.

Contests have proved very tight, too, with no more than a goal in it for seven of last term's eight ties. Two of last season's knockout round play-offs went to spot kicks, with Belgian sides Anderlecht and Gent both prevailing after cancelling out first-leg deficits.

So if you're planning an early night on 22 February, think again.

Conference League knockout round play-off contenders

Where is the 2024 Europa Conference League final?

SPORTSFILE

The 2023/24 UEFA Europa Conference League season is set to conclude at the AEK Arena in Athens, Greece, on Wednesday 29 May 2024.

Opened in September 2022, the new stadium stands on the site of the Nikos Goumas Stadium, which had been home to AEK Athens since 1930 but sustained serious damage during an earthquake in 1999. With a capacity of over 30,000, the new stadium in the north-western suburb of Nea Filadelfia stages Greece international home games as well as AEK matches.