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What to look out for in the UEFA Europa Conference League round of 16 first legs

Ajax and Aston Villa meet in a clash of the UEFA Europa Conference League titans, while Union SG, PAOK and Olympiacos are out to show their class.

Aston Villa's Leon Bailey, Ajax's Jordan Henderson and Union SG's Christian Burgess
Aston Villa's Leon Bailey, Ajax's Jordan Henderson and Union SG's Christian Burgess

Former European champions Ajax and Aston Villa meet in a first leg in Amsterdam, Union SG are looking to once more sneak under the radar, while two Greek contenders will aim to edge closer to the UEFA Europa Conference League final in Athens.

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.

Thursday 7 March

Ajax vs Aston Villa (18:45 CET)
Molde vs Club Brugge (18:45 CET)
Sturm Graz vs LOSC Lille (18:45 CET)
Olympiacos vs Maccabi Tel-Aviv (18:45 CET)
Servette vs Viktoria Plzeň (21:00 CET)
Union SG vs Fenerbahçe (21:00 CET)
Dinamo Zagreb vs PAOK (21:00 CET)
Maccabi Haifa vs Fiorentina (21:00 CET)

What happens next?

Round of 16 second legs: 14 March
Quarter-final & semi-final draws: 15 March
Quarter-finals: 11 and 18 April
Semi-finals: 2 and 9 May
Final: 29 May

What to look out for

Ajax and Villa await Amsterdam thriller
Ajax have been European champions four times, Aston Villa just the once, but there will be no sense of superiority as John van 't Schip's charges face up to a Villa side led by Unai Emery, who won the UEFA Europa League three times as Sevilla coach, and then once more with Villarreal. Ajax's English midfielder Jordan Henderson is unlikely to need to tell his club-mates that the Birmingham side have been having an excellent season.

The Amsterdam giants, by contrast, have looked vulnerable at times, their predominantly youthful side squeezing through their knockout round play-off against Bodø/Glimt after extra time in the second leg in Norway. Villa won the sides' only previous meeting 2-1 at home in a 2008/09 UEFA Cup group stage game and, worryingly for Ajax, they have lost their last five home games against English clubs, failing to score in four of them.

Taylor's dramatic Ajax winner

Fenerbahçe face up to Union power
"We're a strong side, we can hurt a lot of teams," said midfielder Alessio Castro-Montes as Union SG celebrated their knockout round play-off success against Eintracht Frankfurt, and the draw has offered the Belgian side the chance to test themselves against another major force in European football as they kick off at home against Fenerbahçe. Absent from Belgium's top tier from 1973 to 2021, Alexander Blessin's side been quietly transformed into a force in European football.

They will have plenty to contend with in Brussels, though, not least as the Flemish-speaking part of Belgium has a significant Turkish population. Under İsmail Kartal, Fenerbahçe have been a side worth cheering; they won their first 19 games of the season in all competitions and possess plenty of star quality, not least in the shape of seasoned forwards Edin Džeko and Dušan Tadić. Moreover, they are unbeaten in their last three games in Belgium (W2 D1), and can count on even more passionate backing in the second leg in Istanbul.

Highlights: Eintracht Frankfurt 1-2 Union SG

PAOK and Olympiacos flying the flag for Greece
With the final of this season's Europa Conference League being played at Athens' AEK Arena, the two Greek sides left in the competition have an extra incentive to perform. Răzvan Lucescu's PAOK kick off their tie away from home against Dinamo Zagreb, while Olympiacos are at home against Maccabi Tel-Aviv.

From the port of Piraeus, in the Athens region, Olympiacos would have the shortest journey if they were to make it to the final. Thrylos have had a tempestuous campaign, with José Luis Mendilibar their third coach since the start of the season, but they looked a class act as they eliminated Ferencváros in the knockout round play-offs. As defender David Carmo put it: "To get results, you need to have a really good family in the dressing room – and we have that. No one is better than anyone else, we fight together for one goal."

Highlights: Ferencváros 0-1 Olympiacos

Where is the 2024 UEFA Europa Conference League final being played?


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.

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