Five former European champions are among 48 sides from 26 nations jostling for position as the race for the 2014/15 UEFA Europa League final gets under way.
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Former European champions FC Internazionale Milano, Celtic FC, PSV Eindhoven, FC Steaua Bucureşti and Feyenoord provide the star quality as teams from 26 nations prepare for opening night in the UEFA Europa League on Thursday.
The 48-team group stage has a physical and multinational sweep that even the UEFA Champions League cannot match, and no shortage of big-name sides either. Three former European Champion Clubs' Cup holders involved all kick off away from home; Inter are in Ukraine to take on FC Dnipro Dinpropetrovsk, Celtic FC have a tricky trip to FC Salzburg – who feature last season's eight-goal UEFA Europa League top scorer Jonatan Soriano – while Feyenoord visit last season's UEFA Europa League winners Sevilla FC.
Steaua are at home to Aalborg BK, while PSV mark the 40th anniversary of their biggest ever European win – a 10-0 against Northern Ireland's Ards FC in the 1974/75 UEFA Cup Winners' Cup – with a game against Estoril Praia, who are back in the group stage for a second successive season. The presence of plenty of sides with impeccable continental pedigree lends a certain gravitas to the UEFA Europa League, but crucial to the UEFA Europa League's appeal is the way they rub shoulders with up and coming sides like Estoril.
Russian side FK Krasnodar are a case in point. Visiting UEFA Champions League regulars LOSC Lille on matchday one, they are in their first season in European competition, a year after neighbours FC Kuban Krasnodar embarked on their first UEFA Europa League group stage campaign. Romania's FC Astra Giurgiu – who visit GNK Dinamo Zagreb – have already proved that a lack of European experience is not necessarily a bar to success in this competition, having eliminated FC Slovan Liberec and Olympique Lyonnais to reach this stage.
Elsewhere, HJK Helsinki are embarking on their first group stage competition since the 1998/99 UEFA Champions League, while Legia Warszawa – up against Belgium's KSC Lokeren OV first time out – have more motivation to succeed than both. The final will be held in their home city, on 27 May next year, and for the first time, the winners will qualify automatically for the following season's UEFA Champions League group stage. A massive reward, and one which promises to make this season's competition as classy and exciting as ever.