Osmanlıspor's secret weapon, BATE Borisov's saving grace and the prospect of penalties. Here's what's coming up this week as 44 sides battle it out for 22 group stage places.
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Newcomer Osmanlıspor's secret weapon
Promoted Osmanlıspor surprised everyone last season as they finished fifth in Turkey and the competition debutants are confounding expectations again in Europe. Coach Mustafa Akçay can take some credit – whisper it, but he is now 17 games unbeaten in the UEFA Europa League (12 matches with Trabzonspor, five at Osmanlıspor). If he can make it 18 then the Ankara club are through after an impressive 1-0 win at Midtjylland last week.
Will lightning strike for Hammers?
Romanian club Astra Giurgiu brought a premature end to West Ham's European ambitions 12 months ago and they are well placed to repeat the feat after fighting back to draw 1-1 in Romania. Slaven Bilić was happy enough, though, and warns that having rested players in the away leg, the Hammers will be at full-strength for the return at their new home in east London.
Where will the penalty shoot-outs come?
Only once in seven previous seasons since the play-off round was introduced have we not had at least one penalty shoot-out. There is one goal or less in 12 of the 22 ties, with Genk v Lokomotiva Zagreb and Sparta Praha v SønderjyskE all square. Both the favourites are at home this time, though, so the longest nights may come elsewhere: Hajduk Split v Maccabi Tel-Aviv (1-2) or Qarabağ v Göteborg (0-1) perhaps?
BATE's home help
BATE Borisov have featured in the UEFA Champions League group stage four times in the last six seasons. Dundalk sensationally blocked their path this term and now the Belarusian title holders' UEFA Europa League ambitions hang precariously after losing 2-0 at Astana. At home, though, BATE are a different proposition, with a 17-game unbeaten run dating back to 20 October. This one could go all the way.
Top-ranked clubs go through automatically to the group stage and 18 sides will transfer from the UEFA Champions League before the season is out. Yet in five of the last seven campaigns a team has gone from the play-offs all the way to the final, including three winners. Whoever progresses have the weight of history behind them.