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Big hitters await UEFA Europa League opening night

The UEFA Europa League group stage is packed with top sides, with Club Atlético de Madrid coach Quique Sánchez Flores determined "to prove that we deserve to be the holders".

Juventus are among the top sides in the UEFA Europa League group stage
Juventus are among the top sides in the UEFA Europa League group stage ©Getty Images

The successor to the UEFA Cup may not boast the prestige of Europe's elite club competition, but given the calibre of team involved it may be every bit as hard to win as the UEFA Champions League this season.

The 48 sides in the UEFA Europa League group stage have 38 major UEFA titles between them: 12 European Champion Clubs' Cups, 11 UEFA Cup Winners' Cups and 15 editions of the UEFA Cup and UEFA Europa League.

In such exalted company, even holders Club Atlético de Madrid have reason to feel insecure, with coach Quique Sánchez Flores saying before the Matchday 1 trip to Aris Thessaloniki FC: "We have to prove we deserve to be the holders. We are starting from scratch with a view to getting the best possible results. It's more difficult to retain a title than to win it."

Having won all three of the big UEFA club competitions at least once, Juventus might have expected to be billed as tournament favourites. However, coach Luigi Delneri reckons that is not the case as they prepare to welcome KKS Lech Poznan.

"Maybe we are not the favourites to win the competition – there are several good teams involved this year, starting with Manchester City in our group. But Juve are improving day by day and there is no limit to our ambition."

With eight continental honours, Liverpool FC can trump Juve's six, yet even they have no cause to feel like big fish in a small pond. Yes, they have conquered Europe five times – four more than visitors FC Steaua Bucureşti – but for the current generation past successes count for little.

Defender Daniel Agger said: "I came here to win trophies and we've not won anything for four or five years. With a squad of 25 players or more, playing games in the cups is a great way to keep everyone happy. You need a big squad filled with quality players to compete for those titles."

Keeping ambitious players happy will be a concern for Manchester City boss Roberto Mancini, though he will need no reminding as his team head for FC Salzburg that the UEFA Europa League has little respect for reputations. The Austrian club won all six group stage games last term, with S.S. Lazio and Villarreal CF among their scalps.

"The first match in a group is both important and difficult," said Mancini. "We have great respect for Salzburg. We know what they achieved last season. We have a lot of injured players, but still have enough very good ones for this match. In short: we came to Austria to win."