UEFA Europa League back with a bang

The 2011 winners, last year's UEFA Champions League runners-up and a coach making an emotional return are among the contenders gearing up for UEFA Europa League duty.

Wayne Rooney will be trying to help Manchester United win their first UEFA Europa League trophy
Wayne Rooney will be trying to help Manchester United win their first UEFA Europa League trophy ©Getty Images

After a two-month hiatus the UEFA Europa League swung back into action on Tuesday with impressive away victories for Olympiacos FC and Beşiktaş JK. They were tasty starters to the round of 32, and on Thursday a number of mouthwatering ties provide the main course to devour. As FC Schalke 04 and Netherlands striker Klaas-Jan Huntelaar told UEFA.com recently: "Now it really starts and it gets nicer and nicer the further you get."

If last season's UEFA Champions League semi-finalists Schalke are to hold any hope of reaching the final on 9 May, they will first have to get past an FC Viktoria Plzeň side who before Christmas were vying with FC Barcelona and AC Milan for a place in the last 16 of the UEFA Champions League. Indeed this term's edition of the knockout stage boasts a host of glamorous clubs determined to follow FC Porto onto the winner's plinth in Bucharest.

AFC Ajax v Manchester United FC
There are seven former tournament winners among the final 32, including Porto, in addition to five previous European champions, two of whom will face off in Amsterdam. Ajax welcome last year's UEFA Champions League finalists Manchester United in one of the standout ties. The two have not met competitively since the 1976/77 UEFA Cup first round, when United prevailed 2-1 on aggregate, yet this is one of the few trophies Sir Alex Ferguson has still to lift – and his charges will be eager to change that statistic against the 1991/92 winners.

FC Porto v Manchester City FC
United's neighbours Manchester City also have a plum tie: they travel to Portugal to play Porto. City, who like their hosts, came third in their UEFA Champions League group this season, exited this competition in the round of 16 last term and Roberto Mancini's Premier League leaders will need to be at their best to overcome the holders, who are unbeaten in seven European home games.

S.S. Lazio v Club Atlético de Madrid
Atlético also have impressive recent form, as tournament winners in 2010. The Spanish Liga team were convincing Group I winners, but will recall that their only defeat in the section came at Udinese Calcio on matchday three. Italy is again their port of call, representing a return to familiar surroundings for coach Diego Simeone who had four years at Lazio as a player. "There is a strong bond with the fans there," he said, though such affection must be temporarily cast aside as the Biancocelesti are enjoying a resurgence that has lifted them to fourth place in Serie A.

AZ Alkmaar v RSC Anderlecht
Anderlecht do not have far to go when they take on AZ Alkmaar in a battle between Belgium and the Netherlands' league leaders. The visitors will also be confident of success given the prolific exploits of striker Matías Suárez, who tops the competition scoring chart with seven goals. The Argentinian is not the only danger man, however, as Les Mauves have scored an unrivalled 18 goals eight more than an AZ outfit who scraped through to the last 32 despite drawing their last five group fixtures.