DAVID SMITH - Tuesday, December 13, 2011
A draw could be enough to guarantee Clint Dempsey and Fulham passage to the final 32 while Jozy Altidore and AZ will likely need a win in their final group game to continue their European run.
FC Fulham - Odense BK
Clint Dempsey will likely take part on Wednesday evening when Fulham host Group K last-place team Odense BK with a spot in the knockout round on the line.
Fulham's second-place standing and one-point cushion in the group give them an important advantage over third-place chasers Wisla Krakow, and any result which equals or surpasses that of the Polish team in their home match against group leaders Twente will see Dempsey and his teammates through.
While the odds are in the Cottagers' favor at first glance, head coach Martin Jol has indicated in his pre-game press conference that he plans to leave nothing to chance and will field a strong lineup, likely meaning that Dempsey will see some time on the field.
Aside from their recent win over Liverpool in Premier League play, the last few weeks have been anything but easy for the London-based team, with their paltry sum of three wins through their first 15 league games leaving them dangerously close to the relegation places.
Odense are also having a rough time this year, uncharacteristically failing to gain any momentum in Danish Superligaen play, and also suffering an abysmal European campaign that has them likely to finish last in the group.
The most critical absence for Fulham is the competition's second leading scorer Andrew Johnson, who is suspended for the game. Additionally, midfielders Steve Sidwell and Danny Murphy are out with respective hernia and ankle problems, while goalkeeper Mark Schwarzer is still questionable due to a back problem.
For the Danes, keeper Mads Toppel, midfielder Kalilou Traoré and defender Christian Sørensen are all set to miss the game with injury.
RSC Anderlecht - Lokomotive Moscow
Sacha Kljestan and Anderlecht will hope to put an end to their recent troubles while finishing the group stage as the competition's only perfect team when they host Lokomotiv Moscow in a battle for Group L supremacy.
Anderlecht were dealt only their third loss of the season over the weekend, falling on the road to KV Mechelen. This was their second straight game without a win, a rather unusual state of affairs for their otherwise high-flying season in both domestic and European play.
They currently stand alone atop Group L with five wins from five, however their Russian opponents are nipping at their heels a mere three points back.
A win, draw or close loss would still give Kljestan and the rest of the team the group crown, however the opportunity to be the only team in the entire competition to take all six wins will surely give them an extra push.
Anderlecht midfielder Lucas Biglia is still out for the long haul, and forward Dieumerci Mbokani is still questionable for the game.
Lokomotive will likely be without injured midfielder and team captain Dmitri Loskov.
AZ Alkmaar - Metalist Kharkiv
Jozy Altidore and AZ will likely need at least a draw in their home game against Group G leaders Metalist Kharkiv if they hope to pass through to the final 32 of the competition.
Should AZ manage to take a draw against the Ukrainians, then only an improbably massive blowout by third-place Vienna over cellar team Malmö would keep them out of the knockout round.
Considering that the team has drawn four of their five matches in the group - including a 1-1 finish against Metalist in late-September - this could very well be a likely result for the Dutch team.
They appear to have gotten back on track in their domestic campaign after a slight slip, taking out their aggression on hapless De Graafschap over the weekend to put an end to a previous three-game winless run.
The only likely absence for AZ is that of midfielder Maarten Martens, who did manage to suit up with the reserves earlier in the week as he continues his rehabilitation for ankle surgery, but is likely not yet ready for first-team action.
Metalist are not currently reporting any absences to their squad.
Birmingham City FC - NK Maribor
Jonathan Spector and Birmingham have a faint chance of passing through the group phase to the knockout round if all the cards fall in the correct places, however they will need to focus on doing their part when they host NK Maribor on Thursday.
Birmingham are currently sitting three points back of both Braga and Brugge. Should they defeat the last-place Slovenians and the Portuguese defeat current group leaders Brugge, they will wrap up second place in the group and an extension of their European campaign.
They needed a pair of second-half goals to get by their Slovenian counterparts in the first meeting in September, but will hope the home advantage will serve them well on Thursday so they leave nothing to chance.
Chris Hughton's team come into the game with momentum finally turned to their side, having broken free of a four-game winless run to post a victory over Doncaster during the weekend.
For Birmingham, defender Liam Ridgewell and midfielder Jordon Mutch are both questionable to feature due to injuries.
Maribor are not reporting any absences.
Oguchi Onyewu has been included in the Sporting squad that traveled to Rome to take on Lazio in the final Group D game, however with first place already secured and the coach including several youth players in the squad, the American could be given a rest.
Jermaine Jones has not been chosen as a part of the Schalke squad that has traveled to Israel to take on Maccabi Haifa in their Group J closer. Schalke has already secured first place in the group and will be more concerned with their weekend game against Werder Bremen.
Steve Cherundolo is out on yellow card suspension for Hannover, and will not take part when they host Group B last-place team Vorskla Poltava. Hannover is already assured of taking second place in the group no matter what the outcome of the game.
Brad Friedel will not be in uniform for Tottenham on Thursday when they likely end this season's European campaign with a short trip to Dublin to visit Shamrock Rovers.