Athletic, Dortmund, Southampton in scramble for Europa League group stage berths
Athletic Bilbao need to turn around a first leg home loss in Thursday`s Europa League play-off second leg action to book their spot in the group stage with Borussia Dortmund, Southampton and Ajax also looking to advance.
AFP Sports picks six things to look out for among the 22 ties in the final round before the group stage:
- In Bilbao, Athletic will be bidding to turn around a 3-2 loss at Slovak side MSK Zilina where the beaten 2012 finalists threw away a two-goal lead. Athletic were 2-0 up at half-time thanks to goals by Sabin Merino and Kike Sola. But Jakub Paur pulled a goal back for Zilina before Brazilian forward William, on as a substitute, equalised in the 77th minute and then netted the winning goal four minutes into stoppage time. Ernesto Valverde`s side will be looking for a boost following a loss in their opening match of La Liga, falling 1-0 at home to Barcelona last weekend although goalie Gorka Iraizoz saved a first-half spot-kick from Lionel Messi.
- In Germany, Borussia Dortmund look to continue their dream start to the season under new coach Thomas Tuchel and build on their remarkable 4-3 comeback win from three goals down after 22 minutes away to Norwegian side Odd. Dortmund`s strong start to the season continued Sunday as their 4-0 win at new-boys Ingolstadt saw them leapfrog Bayern Munich to top the Bundesliga table on goal difference. It was Dortmund`s sixth win in all competitions under Tuchel as defender Matthias Ginter, Marco Reus, Shinji Kagawa and Pierre-Emerick Aubameyang scored second-half goals.
- At Herning, Southampton have work to do if they want to join Tottenham Hotspur and Liverpool and make it three English clubs in the group stage after being held 1-1 by Danish champions Midtjylland at St Mary`s last week. Jay Rodriguez`s penalty gave Ronald Koeman`s men a lifeline and they will need to score in Denmark. Koeman is hopeful Sadio Mane will be fit after the Senegalese striker was forced off with a hip injury as Southampton went a third game without victory in a 0-0 draw at promoted Watford in the Premier League on Sunday. Southampton have not won away from home in the league since February, but they did at least record a first clean sheet in nine league outings.
- In Istanbul, Turkish league runners-up Fenerbahce will be looking to build on their away-goal advantage after Robin van Persie scored his first goal for the club since joining the Turkish club from Manchester United for 4.7 million euros (£3.4m, $5.2m) last month. The 32-year-old Dutch international striker replaced Moussa Sow 10 minutes from the end of Fenerbahce`s match away to Greek side Atromitos in Athens and netted a 90th-minute winner. The 1-0 victory leaves the 2013 semi-finalists primed to clinch a place in the group stage in the return leg.
- Dutch giants Ajax travel to Czech minnows Jablonec with all still to play for. Frank de Boer`s side failed to build on a penalty scored nine minutes into the second half when Arkadiusz Milik converted after Vít Benes`s foul on Davy Klaassen in the box but Jaroslav Silhavy`s side threatened in the later stages. Romanian champions Steaua Bucharest have an uphill battle at Swedish club Rosenborg who look set to advance after three late goals from Tobias Mikkelsen, Pal André Helland and captain Mike Jensen in a 3-0 victory which leaves the Trondheim side with one foot in the group stage ahead of their home fixture.
- French clubs Bordeaux and Saint-Etienne bid to join Marseille in the group stage but with all still to play for. Bordeaux face the longest journey in the competition as they carry a 1-0 advantage to Kazakh side Kairat Almaty thanks to a first half goal from Tunisian striker Wahbi Khazri in western France. 10-man St-Etienne earned a valuable away goal in a 1-1 draw at Milsami Orhei amd welcome the Moldovans.