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

Get the lowdown on the eight knockout round play-off openers, including Feyenoord's latest encounter with Roma, and a Galatasaray welcome for Sparta Praha.

Rafael Leão in Milan training on Wednesday
Rafael Leão in Milan training on Wednesday AC Milan via Getty Images

The UEFA Europa League returns on Thursday 15 February with eight knockout round play-off openers. Get the lowdown on every game.

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What are the knockout round play-offs?

There are 16 teams involved in the Europa League knockout round play-offs: the eight runners-up from the 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 22 February; the away goals rule has been abolished. The eight play-off winners join the eight group winners in the round of 16 draw on Friday 23 February; the eight play-off losers will no longer be involved in 2023/24 European competition.

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Thursday 15 February

Feyenoord vs Roma (18:45 CET)

Quarter-final highlights: Roma 4-1 Feyenoord

Arne Slot would have been forgiven a wince as his Feyenoord side were drawn to face Roma for the third time in as many seasons. Edged out by José Mourinho's men in the inaugural Europa Conference League final in 2022, the Rotterdammers succumbed to the Giallorossi once more after extra time in last season's Europa League quarter-finals. "Roma use a formation we don't often see in the Netherlands," said Slot. "I'll try to make the most of what I learned from the last two encounters."

Roma's record against Feyenoord is not perfect (W3 D1 L1) and they are in a state of flux following the departure of Mourinho in mid-January. Roma midfield great Daniele De Rossi took over, determined to arrest a slide in form, and said: "Bad moments can happen but a city like this and a team like this be lifted by the supporters' passion. The fans can give us a big push."

Did you know?
Slot, who only took his first senior post in 2019, has been named best coach two years running in the Eredivisie.

Galatasaray vs Sparta Praha (18:45 CET)

Highlights: Galatasaray 3-3 Man United

Cimbom took on Sparta four times in the 1990s (W1 D1 L2) but are up against the capital side for the first time this century after denying Manchester United a transfer from the Champions League. Coach Okan Buruk has been working on understanding Sparta's three-man defensive line and feels optimistic: "We have the ability to do well and get through this round."

Brian Priske's Czech champions will be expecting a roasting-hot reception in Istanbul; indeed forward Jakub Pešek is positively looking forward to it, saying: "There will be a great atmosphere." Provided they keep their heads in Türkiye, Sparta's prospects look good; they have won both of their previous home games against Galatasaray, scoring three goals in each.

Did you know?
Sparta beat Fenerbahçe 2-1 on their first visit to Türkiye in September 1989, but have not won in six visits since (D1 L5).

Shakhtar Donetsk vs Marseille (18:45 CET)

Watch 2009 Shakhtar strike against Marseille

Pierre-Emerick Aubameyang has seven goals in seven European outings this season and needs just one more to equal Radamel Falcao's all-time Europa League record of 30. The 34-year-old will lead the charge for Gennaro Gattuso's Marseille side in Hamburg, but another man who knows a thing or two about scoring in UEFA competition, sporting director Jean-Pierre Papin, is urging his side to pay due respect to "a club with significant European experience".

Shakhtar boss Marino Pušić, meanwhile, will have to deal with the perennial problem of clubs from cold climes in the spring phase of European competitions. "Marseille will have played several competitive games before they meet us, and we will only have had friendlies." However, a relative lack of competitive football did not stop the Pitmen from eliminating OM from the quarter-finals of the victorious UEFA Cup in 2008/09, winning home and away.

Did you know?
Marseille have lost their last six games in Germany since a 3-2 success at Dortmund in the 2011/12 UEFA Champions League group stage.

Young Boys vs Sporting CP (18:45 CET)

Highlights: Sporting CP 3-0 Sturm Graz

"We know that we are outsiders and need two perfect performances to have a chance of progressing," said YB sporting director Steve von Bergen after his side were drawn against the Lisbon giants, but following their Champions League exertions in the winter, Raphaël Wicky's side may be quietly confident that they can eke out a first-leg lead in Berne.

Viktor Gyökeres' impressive goalscoring record since the Swedish international's summer arrival from English side Coventry has helped to keep Sporting CP in the upper reaches of the Portuguese table. There has been a lot of interest in the 25-year-old, with coach Rúben Amorim feeling the need to remind the world that he would not be leaving the club unless his substantial release clause was triggered.

Did you know?
Young Boys have yet to win in four UEFA games against Portuguese sides: a pair of 2011/12 Europa League play-off draws against Braga, and 2-1 defeats away and at home against Porto in the 2019/20 group stage.

Who is through to the last 16?

Atalanta (ITA)
Brighton (ENG)
Leverkusen (GER)
Liverpool (ENG)
Rangers (SCO)
Slavia Praha (CZE)
Villarreal (ESP)
West Ham (ENG)

Benfica vs Toulouse (21:00 CET)

Highlights: Toulouse 3-2 Liverpool

French Cup winners last season, Toulouse have once more had their most impressive results in this campaign away from Ligue 1, a 3-2 group stage home win against Liverpool certainly one for the scrapbook. "We are in Europe to play prestigious matches like this," said boss Carles Martinez Novell. "We will try to continue the adventure."

Two-time European champions Benfica nominally eclipse Toulouse, but the club's head of international relations, and former winger, Simão Sabrosa was eager to point out that reputation counts for little although the substantial number of Portuguese fans living in France may give his side a significant lift in the second leg. "We know that there is a very strong Portuguese community," he said. "We are, without a doubt, counting on that support."

Did you know?
This is the first time that Toulouse have reached the spring phase of a UEFA club competition.

Milan vs Rennes (21:00 CET)

Highlights: Maccabi Haifa 0-3 Rennes

There was a degree of disappointment as Milan slipped out of the Champions League, but a place in the Europa League was no small consolation given the quality of their group stage opponents: Newcastle, Dortmund and Rennes' countrymen Paris.

The Brittany-based side have not had particularly happy adventures in Italy: they have lost all their three of their previous away encounters with Serie A opponents, conceding twice in each of them, but coach Julien Stéphan is relishing a glamour tie regardless. "They are a top team, a top club, and very prestigious. To be faced with this type of opponent is a great opportunity."

Did you know?
Rennes coach Stéphan is the son of Guy Stéphan, who has been assistant to France boss Didier Deschamps since 2012.

Lens vs Freiburg (21:00 CET)

Wahi's Lens wonderstrike

Neither side will feel like they got a glamour tie in this France vs Germany encounter, but Lens coach Franck Haise preferred to focus on the positives "It is so good to start 2024 with at least two European matches," he said. "I don't know if one team is more of a favourite than the other. On the other hand, they must be saying the same thing as us."

Lens have a decent home record against Bundesliga sides (W4 D1 L1), and Freiburg boss Christian Streich knows of their reputation, describing Les Sang-et-Or as a "top team" and an "extremely difficult draw". He will be preparing his side for a lively opening in France, having noted that Lens have "hot-blooded fans who are totally behind the team; it gets brutally loud there".

Did you know?
Lens are unbeaten in eight European home games (W6 D2) since a 2-1 loss to Italian side Parma in November 2006, but have not kept a clean sheet at home in 11 UEFA encounters since a 1-0 win against Udinese in February 2006.

Braga vs Qarabağ (21:00 CET)

Highlights: Qarabağ 2-1 Häcken

Losing Europa League finalists in 2011, Braga failed to win a home game in this season's Champions League group stage (D1 L2), but they can be forgiven that given that Napoli and Real Madrid were among the guests for Artur Jorge's side.

"Portuguese clubs take the European club competitions very seriously," said Qarabağ boss Gurban Gurbanov after December's draw. "One of them is now our opponent. It will be a great experience for us." In charge since 2008, Gurbanov was the Azerbaijani champions' boss when they last visited Portugal, losing 2-0 at Sporting CP in September 2018. His current squad includes plenty of South American players with Portuguese league experience.

Did you know?
Qarabağ reached the Europa Conference League knockout round play-offs in 2021/22 and 2022/23 but this is the first time they have made it to the same stage of the Europa League.

Second legs: Thursday 22 February

Rennes vs Milan (18:45 CET)
Freiburg vs Lens (18:45 CET)
Toulouse vs Benfica (18:45 CET) 
Qarabağ vs Braga (18:45 CET)
Roma vs Feyenoord (21:00 CET)
Sporting CP vs Young Boys (21:00 CET)
Sparta Praha vs Galatasaray (21:00 CET)
Marseille vs Shakhtar Donetsk (21:00 CET)

Where is the 2024 UEFA Europa League final?

©Getty Images

The 2023/24 UEFA Europa League season will conclude at Dublin Arena in the Republic of Ireland on 22 May 2024.

With a capacity in excess of 50,000, Dublin Arena is the home of the Republic of Ireland's national football and Ireland's rugby union team. First opened in 2010, the stadium will be staging its second UEFA Europa League decider, having been the venue for the all-Portuguese final of 2011 between Porto and Braga, when Radamel Falcao scored the only goal as the Dragons took the trophy.