PARIS, February 17 – Italian giants Juventus will take a stab at European glory for the second time this season when they meet Dutch heavyweights Ajax in the first-leg of their Europa League tie on Thursday.
The last 32 clash is a rematch of the 1996 Champions League final, which saw the Italian club triumph over then holders Ajax in a penalty shootout 4-2 after it finished 1-1 at the end of normal time.
With the Amsterdam side nine points off league leaders PSV Eindhoven and Juventus trailing first-placed Inter Milan by 16 points, the Europa League represents their last chance at winning a major title in 2010.
Juve’s French midfielder Jonathan Zebina conceded that another Serie A title is out of the club’s reach but that his team would give their all to win the trophy.
"We have to continue now as the season is still long and there are objectives. It might not be the Scudetto, but it won’t be bad if we win the Europa League," Zebina told the official Juventus website.
But Ajax’s Danish starlet Christian Eriksen believes his side can pile on the woes for The Old Lady, who sacked coach Ciro Ferrara just over two weeks ago.
"Juventus are in bit of a crisis," the 18-year-old playmaker said.
"I hope we can win at home. We must now seize our opportunity. I think we can pull off an upset."
Juventus feature in this rebranded successor to the UEFA Cup after crashing out of the Champions League earlier this season, while Ajax failed to even qualify for Europe’s elite competition after finishing third in the championship.
A place in the Europa League is the consolation prize awarded to clubs that finish third in their Champions League qualifying groups.
Rafael Benitez’s Liverpool was one of those sides and his team will bid to turn around their ailing season when Romanian champions Unirea Urziceni – coached by former Romania and Chelsea star defender Dan Petrescu – visit Anfield on Thursday.
The Reds have been knocked out of both of England’s domestic cups and are behind Premier League leaders Chelsea by 14 points.
"Clearly I would prefer to be fighting for the title or for the Champions League but you must accept the situation," said the Liverpool manager.
"But you have to be positive and turn things in your favour…we have got to keep progressing in the Europa League and aim to finish as high as we can in the Premier League."
Although striker Fernando Torres is still out injured, Benitez is expected to field his strongest possible side on Thursday in the club’s last-ditch bid to win some silverware this season.
The tournament include eight Champions League drop-outs including German titleholders Wolfsburg and Ajax’s bitter domestic rivals PSV Eindhoven.
Hamburg’s new signing, Dutch striker Ruud van Nistelrooy, will be looking to open his European account on Thursday when the German side play PSV, where he plyed his trade before his big money move to Manchester United in 2001.
But the 33-year-old, who arrived from Real Madrid during the January transfer window, has no intention of granting any favours to the team that launched his career.
"It’s the sort of coincidence only football can bring about, but those who know me know I don’t live in the past," said van Nistelrooy.
In the pick of Thursday’s other games, Roy Hodgson’s Fulham meet Ukraine’s Shakhtar Donetsk – who can claim to be the defending champions as they won the last ever UEFA Cup last year – at home while former England coach Steve McClaren sees his high-flying FC Twente side welcome Germany’s Werder Bremen, who were beaten by Shakhtar in the 2009 final.
Spain’s Atletico Madrid will play Turkish giants Galatasaray at home, while Hertha Berlin play Portugal’s Benefica.