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Atlético jostle for position as group stage begins

Club Atlético de Madrid begin their title defence against Aris Thessaloniki FC when the group stage commences on Thursday, with ten former UEFA Cup winners also in action.

Diego Forlán scored both goals in Atlético's final victory against Fulham
Diego Forlán scored both goals in Atlético's final victory against Fulham ©Getty Images

The race to reach the 2010/11 final at the Dublin Arena steps up a gear next Thursday when all 48 teams begin their UEFA Europa League group stage campaigns.

Holders Club Atlético de Madrid were the only automatic entrants into the competition proper but have already added a European trophy this season with their UEFA Super Cup success against FC Internazionale Milano last month. They begin their campaign away to Aris Thessaloniki FC of Greece, with Bayer 04 Leverkusen playing Rosenborg BK in the other Group B game, but there is pedigree aplenty elsewhere in the competition, with ten former UEFA Cup winners among those taking part.

Juventus and Liverpool FC, both three-time winners of that trophy as well as past European champions, welcome KKS Lech Poznań and FC Steaua Bucureşti respectively, while the Bianconeri's Group A rivals, ambitious Manchester City FC, travel to FC Salzburg. Another Austrian side, SK Rapid Wien, accounted for one of a host of upsets in the play-offs when they beat Aston Villa FC for the second successive season and will look to continue their progress at the expense of another former champion, FC Porto.

Galatasaray AŞ, Fenerbahçe SK and Celtic FC were among the other high profile play-off casualties. Their respective conquerors, FC Karpaty Lviv of Ukraine, Greek side PAOK FC and Eredivisie outfit FC Utrecht, will seek to spring further surprises against BV Borussia Dortmund, Club Brugge KV and SSC Napoli. FC Lausanne-Sport of the Swiss second tier are perhaps the most unexpected contenders following victory against FC Lokomotiv Moskva but will find little respite when they play another side from the Russian capital, 2004/05 UEFA Cup winners, PFC CSKA Moskva.

Sevilla FC, who lifted the UEFA Cup in 2006 and 2007, are among ten teams transferring from the UEFA Champions League play-off round and face a tough start to Group J against Paris Saint-Germain FC. Other eye-catching Matchday 1 fixtures to include teams dropping in from Europe's premier club competition include UC Sampdoria's trip to PSV Eindhoven, the visit of FC Zenit St. Petersburg to RSC Anderlecht, and FC Dynamo Kyiv's home game against FC BATE Borisov.