DAVID SMITH - Sunday, December 18, 2011
The matchups for the first knockout round of the Europa League have been set, most notably pairing Jozy Altidore and Sacha Kljestan in a regional derby as AZ and Anderlecht pair off.
The draw also set potential match-up for the subsequent round of 16.
The group of teams featuring Americans in the competition was whittled down to five following the group stage, and with Altidore and Kljestan going head to head, one more is guaranteed to bite the dust in the next round.
Kljestan and his compatriots come into the knockout stage as the only team to maintain a perfect record through their six group games, however they will be tested against Altidore and the current Dutch leaders.
AZ edged past Austria Vienna on goal differential to claim second place in Group G, and are back in the knockout round of European competition for the first time since a three-season run from 2005-2007 which saw them reach both the quarterfinal and semifinal of the UEFA Cup on separate occasions.
The winner will be paired with either Italian team Udinese or Greek team PAOK.
Jermaine Jones and Schalke will unquestionably be considered favorites to get past their Czech opponents Viktoria Plzen, who entered the competition by way of their third-place finish in their Champions League group.
The Czechs are making their first-ever run this late into any European competition, but could find their historic run end against the heavily experienced Germans.
Schalke easily won Group J with six points to spare, and will be looking to celebrate the 15-year anniversary of their 1997 UEFA Cup championship season with another trip to the final.
Assuming they past this test with expected ease, a pair of games against the winner of the series between Steaua Bucharest and FC Twente awaits in the round of 16.
Steve Cherundolo missed Hannover's final group game on yellow card suspension, but will be ready to go when the team lines up against Group H winners Club Brugge.
With this being only Hannover's second-ever appearance in European competition, they will be lacking in experience compared to their Belgian opponents. However a strong run both in Bundesliga and Europa League play will make them a fair match for the heavyweights, if not favorites to come through as victors, where they would face either Wisla Krakow or Standard Liege.
Rounding out the field, Oguchi Onyewu and Group D victors Sporting CP will also be undoubted favorites to win their two-game series against Group C second-place team Legia Warsaw.
Warsaw have a long history in continental competition which includes several trips to quarter- and semifinals, and this appearance in the final 32 ends a 15-year drought since their last time to have European play in the winter and spring months.
Conversely, Sporting are in knock-out play for a fifth-straight season, although they have had little success since their quarterfinal run in early-2008. A victory will guarantee them one of the toughest tasks in the round of 16, as they will take on the winner between Manchester City and reigning Europa League champions Porto.
The first leg for each of the teams will take place on Thursday, February 16, with the return game seven days later.
Europa League round of 32 (February 16/23)
AZ Alkmaar - RSC Anderlecht
Viktoria Plzeň - FC Schalke 04
Hannover 96 - Club Brugge
Legia Warsaw - Sporting CP