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Big hitters eye Europa League group stage

The likes of FC Internazionale Milano, Liverpool FC and Olympique de Marseille will be aiming for the group stage when the UEFA Europa League play-offs get under way on Thursday.

Guus Hiddink's Anzhi are making their UEFA Europa League debut
Guus Hiddink's Anzhi are making their UEFA Europa League debut ©Getty Images

This season's UEFA Europa League play-off draw has thrown up a slew of fascinating fixtures, with several unfancied sides bidding to upstage some of the continent's big hitters.

One of the most intriguing match-ups pits Guus Hiddink's debutants FC Anji  Makhachkala against AZ Alkmaar. The big-spending Russian club have caused quite a stir on home soil but remain something of an unknown quantity on the European stage.

Gertjan Verbeek's charges, meanwhile, have flirted with glory in a competition that continues to elude them. Runners-up in 1981, AZ have since reached the last eight on three occasions, including a quarter-final defeat by Valencia CF last season.

Another team striving to extend their illustrious European history are three-time UEFA Cup winners Liverpool FC. They face a Heart of Midlothian FC team eager to amend a 5-0 aggregate defeat against another English side, Tottenham Hotspur FC, at this juncture 12 months ago.

Continuing their first appearance at this level since bowing out of the UEFA Cup at the quarter-final stage in 2003/04, FC Internazionale Milano will be taking nothing for granted when they play FC Vaslui. Hailing from humble beginnings, the Romanian side have enjoyed a meteoric rise since forming in 2002 and claimed a considerable scalp during last season's group stage, beating Sporting Clube de Portugal in a 1-0 triumph.

Cypriot contenders APOEL FC defied their underdog status in the 2011/12 UEFA Champions League and will have to contend with raised expectations this time round. They take on seven-time Azerbaijani champions Neftçi PFK, who are vying to become the first team from their country to reach the group stage of a major European club competition.

Meanwhile, last year's runners-up Athletic Club meet HJK Helsinki, and Olympique de Marseille, losing finalists in 1999 and 2004, will be hoping for a positive outcome when they travel to Moldovan champions FC Sheriff.

The ties will be played over two legs on 23 and 30 August and can be viewed here. The winners will join the ten defeated sides from the UEFA Champions League play-offs in the group stage, which starts on 20 September. The group stage draw is scheduled for 31 August in Monaco's Grimaldi Forum.

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