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All to play for in Europa League play-offs

The UEFA Europa League play-offs conclude on Thursday with a slew of fascinating fixtures hanging in the balance, and a host of familiar names closing in on the group stage.

Ronald Koeman's Feyenoord travel to Sparta thankful to be level
Ronald Koeman's Feyenoord travel to Sparta thankful to be level ©Getty Images

Some of European football's most revered names have one foot in the UEFA Europa League group stage, while the door remains ajar for a host of other teams after some tightly-contested first legs.

One of those delicately-poised ties was shaped by Feyenoord's passionate second-half rally against AC Sparta Praha. The 20-year-old Czech starlet Václav Kadlec had given the visitors a two-goal lead, before Miguel Nelom halved the deficit 15 minutes after the break. Just 18, substitute Anass Achahbar then snatched a last-gasp equaliser for Rotterdam's two-time UEFA Cup winners.

Bidding to emulate their opponents' meteoric rise to European prominence, Neftçi PFK remain in deadlock with last season's UEFA Champions League quarter-finalists APOEL FC. The seven-time Azerbaijani champions broke free from their shackles eight minutes from time thanks to Mahir Shukurov's opener, but any hopes of a first-leg lead were dashed moments later when Selim Benachour leveled.

Once labeled the Premier League's entertainers, Newcastle United FC have reinvented themselves under the stewardship of Alan Pardew. Competing in Europe for the first time in five years, the Magpies displayed steely determination to come from behind and earn a 1-1 draw at Atromitos FC. Their formidable home record, including 11 wins from 19 games last term, suggests the Greek side will have to conjure something special to upset the odds. 

FC Anji Makhachkala's makeover has also paid dividends on their European debut. The ambitious Russian club were only formed 21 years ago, yet they are quickly establishing themselves as a force to be reckoned with. Their €18m summer recruit Lacina Traoré grabbed the only goal in their narrow 1-0 victory against AZ Alkmaar, but Anzhi's coach Guus Hiddink will know it is far from over against the 1981 UEFA Cup runners-up as he heads back to his native Netherlands.

FC Internazionale Milano take a commanding two-goal lead into their second leg against SC Vaslui, with stalwart Javier Zanetti poised to make his 800th appearance for the club. Three-time winners Liverpool FC host Heart of Midlothian FC with a 1-0 advantage, while last season's losing finalists Athletic Club are all but through after enjoying their biggest European home win – dispatching HJK Helsinki 6-0 in their first leg in Bilbao.

The 31 winners will join the ten defeated sides from the UEFA Champions League play-offs and seven sides who have already qualified in the 48-team group stage, which starts on 20 September. The group stage draw is scheduled for 31 August in Monaco's Grimaldi Forum.