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UEFA Europa League round of 32 preview

This month's round of 32 ties are packed with star quality, seven national champions, a competition past-master and a host of hungry strikers – what's not to love?

Sevilla resume their title defence with a tough-looking tie against Borussia Mönchengladbach
Sevilla resume their title defence with a tough-looking tie against Borussia Mönchengladbach ©AFP/Getty Images

Opening titles
• The presence of Aalborg BK (Denmark), AFC Ajax (Netherlands), RSC Anderlecht (Belgium), Celtic FC (Scotland), Legia Warszawa (Poland), Olympiacos FC (Greece) and FC Salzburg (Austria) means there are seven reigning national champions in the UEFA Europa League round of 32 – as many as in the last 16 of the UEFA Champions League.

Clash of the titans
• Holders Sevilla FC (2006, 2007 and 2014) and VfL Borussia Mönchengladbach (1974 and 1979) have had their hands on the UEFA Europa League trophy five times between them, adding further spice to an exciting-looking tie. Long-range strike specialists this season, Gladbach are also unbeaten in their eight European fixtures this term – including four away from home (W2 D2).

Ten great group stage goals
Ten great group stage goals

The birthday boys
Mönchengladbach midfielder Christoph Kramer (24), FC Internazionale Milano attacker Mauro Icardi (22) and Athletic Club midfielder Beñat (28) all have birthdays on the day of the first legs. AS Roma coach Rudi Garcia turns 51 the day after his side's opener against Feyenoord.

The long way home
• The final takes place at the National Stadium Warsaw on 27 May, meaning Legia go into their tie against Ajax hoping to feature in the decider in their home city – Feyenoord won the 2002 UEFA Cup in a one-off game in Rotterdam, while Sporting Clube de Portugal lost the 2005 showpiece at their Lisbon home.

• Legia and Celtic have had the longest European campaigns of the round of 32 contenders; having kicked off their seasons in the UEFA Champions League second qualifying round, they enter the round of 32 having already played 12 European games in 2014/15.

Rafael Benítez
Rafael Benítez©AFP/Getty Images

The past master
As his team take on Trabzonspor AŞ, SSC Napoli coach Rafael Benítez is angling to match Giovanni Trapattoni in becoming only the second coach to win the UEFA Cup or UEFA Europa League for a third time. The Spaniard previously triumphed with Valencia CF (2004) and Chelsea FC (2013).

• He is one of three coaches in the last 32 to have lifted the UEFA Europa League trophy since the competition assumed its current incarnation, along with Zenit's André Villas-Boas (FC Porto, 2011) and Sevilla's Unai Emery (Sevilla, 2014).

The top scorers
• The January departure of Salzburg's eight-goal Alan for China has created a vacancy for a new 2014/15 UEFA Europa League top scorer; at the moment, four players in the round of 32 have hit five since the beginning of the group stage, including last term's leading marksman – Alan's old team-mate Jonatan Soriano.

• The four strikers to watch:
Demba Ba (Beşiktaş JK)
Guillaume Hoarau (BSC Young Boys)
Harry Kane (Tottenham Hotspur FC)
Jonatan Soriano (FC Salzburg)

Fit for a final
Celtic and Internazionale are meeting for a fourth time, having first faced off in the 1967 European Cup final when Jock Stein's men beat Helenio Herrera's Inter 2-1. However, that defeat was avenged in a fashion in the 1971/72 semi-finals, Giovanni Invernizzi's side overcoming Stein's Celtic 5-4 on penalties at Parkhead after two 0-0 draws.

• Ominously for Ronny Deila's team, Celtic have not won in their last seven games against Italian opposition (D2 L5), losing the last four.

The bitterest memory
• Liverpool FC last hosted Beşiktaş JK in the 2007/08 UEFA Champions League group stage, with Benítez's troops – including perennial captain Steven Gerrard – thrashing Ertuğrul Sağlam's Black Eagles 8-0 at Anfield; it remains Beşiktaş's heaviest European defeat, and indeed the biggest reverse suffered by any club in the UEFA Champions League (group stage to final).

It will be an emotional day for Beşiktaş boss Slaven Bilić too; he played for Liverpool's city rivals Everton FC from 1997–99.