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Europa Conference League knockout round play-off first legs: Game-by-game preview

Get the lowdown on the eight UEFA Europa Conference League knockout round play-off openers, with Ajax, Eintracht Frankfurt, Olympiacos and Real Betis all in action.

Union SG are preparing to take on Eintracht Frankfurt
Union SG are preparing to take on Eintracht Frankfurt BELGA MAG/AFP via Getty Images

Ajax, Eintracht Frankfurt, Olympiacos and Real Betis all feature as the UEFA Europa Conference League returns on Thursday 15 February with eight knockout round play-off openers. Get the lowdown on every game.

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What are the knockout round play-offs?

There are 16 teams involved in the Europa Conference League knockout round play-offs: the eight runners-up from the Europa Conference League group stage and the eight third-placed teams from the UEFA Europa League group stage.

Ties are played over two legs and will conclude on Thursday 22 February; the away goals rule has been abolished. The eight play-off winners join the eight group winners in the round of 16 draw on Friday 23 February; the eight play-off losers will no longer be involved in 2023/24 European competition.

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Thursday 15 February

Sturm Graz vs Slovan Bratislava (18:45 CET)

Highlights: KÍ Klaksvík 1-2 Slovan Bratislava

Both sides will be not long back from their winter break as they come together in Austria. "Staying in Europe shouldn’t only mean playing two more games for us," said Sturm boss Christian Ilzer as he looked ahead to the play-offs. "The Europa Conference League is a huge opportunity to stay in Europe even longer."

As they make the short trip over the border, Slovan will be aware that their hosts are without a win in five European home games, but coach Vladimír Weiss is not taking too much comfort from that. "Sturm are a good team," he said. "They don't have big-name stars, but if you are challenging Salzburg [in the Austrian league] you must be doing something right."

Did you know?
This is the first time that Sturm have featured in the knockout stages of any European competition in 23 years.

Union SG vs Frankfurt (18:45 CET)

Highlights: Eintracht Frankfurt 6-0 HJK

Stuttgart-born Union SG coach Alexander Blessin spent the bulk of his playing career in his native country, but the second leg in Frankfurt will represents a first for the 50-year-old: "It's my first match in Germany [as a coach]. I'm looking forward to it."

Getting to that stage in a winning position will be a challenge, but Frankfurt coach Dino Toppmöller knows that the Brussels side are no pushovers. He said: "We're going up against strong opponents who have made a name for themselves on the European stage over the last few years. They're not at the top of the table in Belgium by accident."

Did you know?
Union SG bowed out to Frankfurt's Bundesliga rivals Leverkusen in last season's quarter-finals; the Werkself were famously steered to the 2001/02 UEFA Champions League final by Toppmöller's father Klaus.

Olympiacos vs Ferencváros (18:45 CET)

Highlights: Ferencváros 3-1 Čukarički

Ferencváros were 5-3 aggregate winners against Olympiacos in the 1996/97 UEFA Cup first round, but past meetings will be of little concern to new home coach José Luis Mendilibar. "We want to win and we will have to play smart," he said. "It's a match between two good teams and we want to get a good result so that we can qualify in the second match."

Ferencváros goalkeeper Dénes Dibusz was pleased enough with his team's draw but noted: "The atmosphere in Athens can be extremely lively." Past Fradi sides certainly found Greek stadia a little too hot to handle; Ferencváros's last two games in Greece ended in 3-0 and 4-0 defeats.

Did you know?
Ferencváros coach Dejan Stanković needs two more club competition winner's medals (the Europa League and Europa Conference League) to complete a full set; he won the Champions League with Inter in 2010, and the UEFA Cup Winners' Cup and UEFA Super Cup with Lazio in 1999.

Molde vs Legia (18:45 CET)

Highlights: Legia 3-2 Aston Villa

Legia beat Molde on the since-abolished away goals in the 2013/14 Champions League third qualifying round, the first leg finishing 1-1 in Norway before a goalless draw in Warsaw. Molde are hoping to kick off with a win in their first competitive game of 2024, coach Erling Moe saying: "Norwegian football is strong nowadays. We no longer have to sit back and be fearful.”

Molde could certainly do with picking up a victory at home, mindful that their guests won all three of their home games in this season's Conference League group stage, including a 3-2 victory against Premier League high-fliers Aston Villa. Legia coach Kosta Runjaić certainly felt that plenty of other sides would be hoping "not Legia" ahead of the play-off draw.

Did you know?
Legia's record in five games in Norway is W1 D3 L2; that lone win was a 3-2 against Bodø/Glimt in the 2021/22 Champions League first qualifying round.

Who is through to the last 16?

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

Servette vs Ludogorets (21:00 CET)

Highlights: Servette 1-1 Roma

Slavia Praha and Roma proved to be too hot to handle for Servette in this season's Europa League group stage, but defender Steve Rouiller knows that moving into to the Europa Conference League does not necessarily mean an easy ride: "We'll have to be at 200% in every match if we intend to stay in the competition."

Servette have won both of their previous European home games against Bulgarian sides, but both of those matches were in the last century. Ludogorets coach Georgi Dermendzhiev is gearing up for a battle, saying: "[Servette] will do everything they can do reach the next round, as will we. We have to take them extremely seriously."

Did you know?
This is Servette's first springtime UEFA tie since they lost out to Fortuna Düsseldorf on away goals in the quarter-finals of the 1978/79 European Cup Winners' Cup.

Real Betis vs Dinamo Zagreb (21:00 CET)

Highlights: Dinamo Zagreb 3-0 Ballkani

Denied a place in the Europa League knockout stage following a Matchday 6 loss to Rangers, Real Betis have been paired with the Croatian champions. "Dinamo have consistently been involved in the Champions League in recent years," said coach Manuel Pellegrini, who was reluctant to read too much into Dinamo's tricky domestic season so far. "Their position in the league table might not be a true reflection of their capabilities," he said.

Having won the last six Croatian titles, Dinamo ended 2023 third in their domestic table. Coach Sergej Jakirović called Betis "one of the toughest sides we could have got" after the draw, but experienced forward Bruno Petković has steeled himself for the challenge: "They are tough opponents but we're well prepared for the challenge."

Did you know?
Dinamo have been to Seville twice before, losing 4-0 (2016) and 3-2 (2022) to Betis's local rivals Sevilla.

Ajax vs Bodø/Glimt (21:00 CET)

Highlights: Bodø/Glimt 5-2 Lugano

Ajax are featuring in the Europa Conference League for the first time, and have drawn fierce opponents in their first encounter, Bodø/Glimt having famously reached the quarter-finals of this competition in 2021/22, beating Roma 6-1 during the group stage. The Norwegian side eliminated Ajax's Eredivisie rivals AZ Alkmaar in the round of 16 during that campaign.

"They're a tough physical team," said Ajax forward Steven Bergwijn. "We have to be sharp, as always, and just be ourselves. It's important that we focus on ourselves and play to our full potential, then it shouldn't matter who we're up against.”

Did you know?
Ajax have won just 25% of their European games against Norwegian sides (W3 D5 L4), their lowest win percentage against any country's teams faced at least ten times in club history.

Maccabi Haifa vs Gent (21:00 CET)

Highlights: Gent 2-0 Maccabi Tel Aviv

Gent won 2-0 at home against Maccabi Tel Aviv during this season's group stage then lost the away fixture, played in Serbia, 3-1. For coach Hein Vanhaezebrouck, it is a sign of what could be to come against Maccabi Haifa: "We saw against Maccabi Tel Aviv how difficult it is against Israeli sides. It's going to be a 50-50 contest."

Tenth in their domestic table at one point this season, Maccabi Haifa have regained their footing, going on a long unbeaten run from the start of December to restore their bid to retain the domestic title.

Did you know?
Maccabi forward Lior Refaelov spent a over a decade in Belgium with Club Brugge and Antwerp; during that time, he scored five goals in 28 meetings with Gent (W12 D8 L8).

Second legs

Wednesday 21 February
Gent vs Maccabi Haifa (18:00 CET)

Thursday 22 February
Ludogorets vs Servette (18:45 CET)
Dinamo Zagreb vs Real Betis (18:45 CET)
Bodø/Glimt vs Ajax (18:45 CET)
Slovan Bratislava vs Sturm Graz (21:00 CET)
Frankfurt vs Union SG (21:00 CET)
Ferencváros vs Olympiacos (21:00 CET)
Legia vs Molde (21:00 CET)

Where is the 2024 UEFA Europa Conference League final?

Sportsfile via Getty Images

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.