PARIS,
France
The
Europa League knockout phase begins on Thursday, with VAR being introduced to
Europe’s secondary club competition for the first time outwith the final for
the last 32, first-leg ties. AFP Sport picks five games to watch this week:

– Man Utd in Bruges –

Manchester United’s Champions League aspirations have been
given a major boost in recent days, first with the news of Manchester City’s
two-year ban from the competition. Then, on Monday, Ole Gunnar Solskjaer’s side
beat Chelsea 2-0 away to close to within three points of their opponents in
fourth place in the Premier League.

Now they revert their focus to the Europa League, which
could also offer them a ticket to next season’s Champions League if they reach
the final in Gdansk in May and lift the trophy.

United head to Belgium to take on Club Brugge in the first
leg of their tie. Beaten by Liverpool in two European finals in the 1970s, Club
Brugge are not a side to be taken lightly. They dropped out of the Champions
League group stage despite holding Real Madrid away, and are nine points clear
atop the Belgian league.

– Arsenal ‘deserve our respect’ –

Arsenal are unbeaten in their last eight games under Mikel
Arteta, although the Gunners’ new Spanish boss could do with turning some of
his team’s many draws into more victories.

Currently in mid-table in the Premier League, last season’s
beaten finalists travel to face Olympiakos knowing this competition is surely
their best bet if they are to return to the Champions League next term.

“They may not have started well in the Premier League
this season, but they have great players, are dangerous and deserve our
respect,” said Pedro Martins, the coach of Olympiakos.

The Greek league leaders dropped out of the Champions League
group stage despite holding Tottenham Hotspur to a 2-2 draw in Piraeus.

– Ajax set for battle in Spain –

After enchanting Europe on their run to the Champions League
semi-finals last year, Ajax were brought crashing back to earth when they were
eliminated from this season’s competition in the group stage.

The Dutch champions were then handed a tough Europa League
draw against a Getafe side who have been one of the stories of the season in
Spain.

The unfashionable outfit from the working-class satellite
town just south of Madrid finished fifth in La Liga last season and are
currently third under Jose Bordalas, whose his idol as a youngster was Johan
Cruyff.

“They are warriors. They fight for every ball and
really give everything,” Ajax star Dusan Tadic told Dutch daily Algemeen
Dagblad. “They are physically very strong and go beyond the limits if
necessary.”

It is Getafe’s first European knockout tie since they took
Bayern Munich to extra time in the UEFA Cup quarter-finals in 2008.

– Will Salzburg survive without Haaland? –

Erling Braut Haaland’s eight goals were not enough for
Salzburg to qualify from the Champions League group stage, and the Austrians
have since lost their striker to Borussia Dortmund. Japanese winger Takumi
Minamino also departed for Liverpool, leaving them looking seriously weakened
for the second half of the season.

Salzburg did sign Swiss starlet Noah Okafor, but their first
league game after a long winter break ended in a 3-2 home defeat by title
rivals LASK Linz last weekend.

Now Salzburg face Eintracht Frankfurt, meaning a reunion
with Adi Huetter, who coached Salzburg to a league and cup double in 2015.

– Celtic fairytale in Copenhagen? –

Celtic have been eliminated at this stage in the last two
seasons but should fancy their chances against FC Copenhagen as they head to
Denmark.

While Celtic have claimed nine straight wins this calendar
year, Copenhagen’s first league game of 2020 ended in defeat last weekend.

Current Celtic manager Neil Lennon was a player when the
Glasgow giants lost 3-1 on their last trip to Copenhagen in the Champions
League in 2006. 

His team qualified by topping their group, and of this tie
he said: “It’s great to have European football after Christmas, and it’s a
tough draw. It could have been tougher, but it could have been easier.”

 

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