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Europa League knockout round play-off first legs: Game-by-game preview

A rundown of all this week's eight Europa League knockout round play-off first legs.

Joaquín, 40, in training ahead of Real Betis' Europa League knockout round play-off first leg against Zenit
Joaquín, 40, in training ahead of Real Betis' Europa League knockout round play-off first leg against Zenit NurPhoto via Getty Images

Barcelona, Atalanta, Dortmund and six-time winners Sevilla are among eight clubs entering the fray as the eight sides transferring from the UEFA Champions League meet the eight UEFA Europa League group runners-up.

What are the knockout round play-offs?

The UEFA Europa League knockout round play-offs have been introduced for the first time this season. There are 16 teams involved: the eight runners-up from the UEFA Europa League group stage and the eight third-placed teams from the UEFA Champions League group stage.

Ties are played over two legs and will conclude on Thursday 24 February; the away goals rule has been abolished. The eight winners advance to the round of 16 draw on Friday 25 February (the eight group winners have already qualified for this); the eight play-off losers will no longer be involved in 2021/22 European competition.

Sevilla vs Dinamo Zagreb

The Sevilla players had not yet showered following the defeat that confirmed their UEFA Champions League exit when attentions turned to their UEFA Europa League. It is a single-mindedness that has run through their record six triumphs in this competition – it would be a brave person who would bet against a seventh.

Sevilla's historic six successes
Sevilla's historic six successes

Sevilla sporting director Monchi has warned his players to beware of Mislav Oršić, architect on Dinamo's staggering comeback from 2-0 down against Tottenham last season. It was the striker who sealed progress for the Croatian champions with victory at West Ham on Matchday 6.

Did you know?
Sevilla have kept clean sheets in seven of their last eight home games in the UEFA Europa League.

Atalanta vs Olympiacos

The pain of UEFA Champions League elimination is still raw for Atalanta, but Gian Piero Gasperini's side have had plenty to distract them since the Matchday 6 defeat by Villarreal that sealed their exit. Injuries, absences, postponements... yet La Dea have dug in and shown resilience, largely curtailing their attacking vim for defensive vigour.

Highlights: Fenerbahçe 0-3 Olympiacos
Highlights: Fenerbahçe 0-3 Olympiacos

While Atalanta face a scrap for a top-four place in Serie A, Olympiacos are well on course for their 47th Greek title. They will be second favourites in Bergamo but the Pireaus outfit won't mind that – they were also underdogs at this stage against Arsenal two seasons ago, and that didn't end too badly.

Did you know?
Olympiacos's heaviest European defeat came in Italy – a 7-0 loss to Juventus in the 2003/04 UEFA Champions League group stage.

Leipzig vs Real Sociedad

Leipzig endured their worst ever start to a top-flight season, the path through the autumn hardly smoothed by a UEFA Champions League group that included Manchester City and Paris Saint-Germain. The German side look rejuvenated by the winter break, though, and have hit the ground running in 2022.

Highlights: Real Sociedad 3-0 PSV
Highlights: Real Sociedad 3-0 PSV

Real Sociedad also had their difficulties towards the end of 2021, losing five out of eight, but they too have rediscovered their touch. David Silva is 36 now and proof that class is permanent, while Spain striker Mikel Oyarzabal and Alexander Isak have established themselves as two of the best forwards in the Liga.

Did you know?
Real Sociedad are yet to win in four visits to Germany (D1 L3).

Porto vs Lazio

The Sérgio Conceição derby. The Porto boss spent the best years of his celebrated playing career at the two clubs, earning a place in Lazio history by playing a key role in the side that followed up the 1998/99 UEFA Cup Winners' Cup by clinching the double the following season. "It's going to be an emotional match for our coach," concedes former Porto goalkeeper Vítor Baía.

Porto vs Lazio: 2003 semi-final flashback
Porto vs Lazio: 2003 semi-final flashback

Opposite number Maurizio Sarri, a former banker, was coaching in Italy's fifth tier during those Lazio glory years. He has come a long way since then and while his Lazio team have struggled for consistency this term, with Ciro Immobile in their ranks they always carry a real threat.

Did you know?
Porto beat Lazio in the semi-finals of their victorious 2002/03 UEFA Cup campaign, winning 4-1 in the home first leg before a goalless draw in Rome.

Who awaits in the round of 16?

The winners of these ties will be unseeded in the round of 16 draw. The seeded teams are Crvena zvezda, Eintracht Frankfurt, Galatasaray, Leverkusen, Lyon, Monaco, Spartak Moskva and West Ham.

Barcelona vs Napoli

Barcelona's first UEFA Cup/UEFA Europa League tie in 18 years could scarcely be more difficult. Napoli know this competition inside out and, after a couple of underwhelming seasons, they are back challenging for top honours in Italy. "They are a Champions League-level side, one of the most difficult teams we could have drawn," rued coach Xavi Hernández.

Highlights: Napoli 3-2 Leicester
Highlights: Napoli 3-2 Leicester

The match-up pits together two former sides of Diego Maradona, who died in November 2020, and Xavi acknowledges this will be a tribute the Argentina great. But, with Barcelona's own hopes of domestic silverware all but over, the Catalan giants will not be standing on ceremony.

Did you know?
Barcelona have only lost three of their 27 home UEFA games against Italian opposition.

Zenit vs Betis

Zenit boss Sergei Semak has also been ruing what was "not a very lucky draw for us". Seville outfit Betis are enjoying a season for the ages. They went into the turn of the year in a position higher than they have finished since 1935 and have picked up where they left off in 2022. Atlético de Madrid and Barcelona trail in their wake.

UEL Heineken MD3 GOTGS - Nabil Fekir (Betis)
UEL Heineken MD3 GOTGS - Nabil Fekir (Betis)

Manuel Pellegrini's brilliant side play with some panache too, exemplified by Nabil Fekir, and while they are dreaming of UEFA Champions League football through the Liga, the UEFA Europa League offers another avenue. Russian league leaders Zenit will have their work cut out in their first competitive outing in over two months.

Did you know?
Zenit have progressed to the round of 16 in five of their previous six campaigns but reached the quarter-finals just once, in 2014/15.

Dortmund vs Rangers

Dortmund return to the competition for the first time in four seasons to face a Rangers side looking to build on last season's run to the last 16. The Scottish giants have had a greater challenge on their hands this term, both in domestic competition and in Europe, but they are always up for the fight.

Reus scores superb individual goal for Dortmund
Reus scores superb individual goal for Dortmund

"Playing against a top club side in Europe will be a great test for us," said Rangers manager Giovanni van Bronckhorst. "It's going to be really hard – but you want challenges." Erling Haaland will certainly present that: the 21-year-old's European record reads 27 goals in 25 games. He will take some stopping.

Did you know?
Dortmund's Giovanni Reyna is the son of former Rangers midfielder Claudio Reyna, who named his son after former team-mate and current Gers manager Van Bronckhorst.

Sheriff vs Braga

This has been a season of firsts for Sheriff. First Moldovan side to reach the UEFA Champions League group stage, first Moldovan side to beat Real Madrid and now first Moldovan side to extend their European campaign into the new year.

Highlights: Braga 1-1 Crvena zvezda
Highlights: Braga 1-1 Crvena zvezda

It means a new problem for Sheriff ahead of their first UEFA encounter with Portuguese opposition (and Braga's first against a team from Moldova): how to hit the ground running after a two-month winter break? No such problem for Braga, fourth in Portugal where there has been no let-up in the action.

Did you know?
This is Sheriff's 15th European game this season – a club record and the joint most, alongside Dinamo Zagreb, of the 16 teams competing in the UEFA Europa League knockout round play-offs.