PREVIEW: EUROPA LEAGUE ACTION
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DAVID SMITH - Thursday, February 16, 2012
Sacha Kljestan and Jozy Altidore will square off in Alkmaar while Jermaine Jones could be back in uniform for Schalke on their trip to Plzen as the Europa League round of 32 gets underway.

AZ Alkmaar - RSC Anderlecht

Sacha Kljestan and Anderlecht will try to extend their nine-game unbeaten streak on Thursday evening when they head north of the border to take on Jozy Altidore and resurgent Dutch co-leaders AZ.

Kljestan will almost certainly start for the visitors, while if recent trends are any indication of AZ head coach Gertjan Verbeek's lineup choice, Altidore will be limited to second-half substitute action.

Both teams come into the game on relatively strong runs, although the Belgian leaders Anderlecht hold the edge, having been completely unbeatable over the last two months.

AZ shook off their woes of December and January to restore their shared place atop the Eredivisie with PSV Eindhoven, most recently beating their last two league opponents by a combined 8-0 scoreline.

The game also marks the first time AZ star Maarten Martens has faced his former club, and with the midfielder having been a dominating presence for his team in recent weeks, could be a thorn in the side of Ariël Jacobs's squad.

Anderlecht will, however be out to continue their historical dominance over Dutch teams, and more importantly make amends for their failure in last season's knockout stage against Ajax.

The only injury concern for Anderlecht is Matias Suarez due to illness while AZ are not reporting any absences.

Viktoria Plzen - FC Schalke 04

Still in the midst of the his eight-week suspension in German domestic play, Jermaine Jones has been included in Schalke's traveling squad and could provide the remedy for their ailing midfield when they face Viktoria Plzen in the first of two legs.

During Jones' weeks as a forced non-participant for Schalke due to his long suspension, the team has simply come apart at the seams, with their midfield play being a major culprit.

They were soundly beaten by league rivals Borussia Mönchengladbach by a 3-0 score over the weekend, and with their previous result being a surprising draw with lowly Mainz, they have fallen five points off the league lead after having celebrated the new year looking like legitimate contenders.

This will likely prompt head coach Huub Stevens to give Jones the start against the Czech team over both legs, if anything to give the American a good warm-up before he is allowed to return to league action in early-March.

Schalke are missing injured players Lewis Holtby, Ralf Fährmann, Alexander Baumjohann, Peer Kluge and Levan Kenia.

Hannover 96 - Club Brugge

Hannover captain Steve Cherundolo should be in his usual spot on the right side of the team's defense on Thursday when they host Belgians Brugge.

Hannover have been solid, if unspectacular to begin 2012, with the 32 year-old Cherundolo having been his regular dependable self on the right side of the field.

Their undefeated record includes two wins and three draws, and has been enough to keep them well within reach of a return to European competition next season.

They will need to be on their toes against Brugge, who have embarked on an imperious run through the last few weeks. After dropping their first two of the year, they have gone on to win their last four by a combined 13-2 score

This has taken them to second place in the Jupiler League, and with a seven-point gap to the top spot, they are now putting slight pressure on Belgian leaders Anderlecht.

For Hannover, the major injury news is the broken leg to midfielder Deniz Aycicek, with Henning Hauger and Altin Lala also set to miss the game.

Brugge will be missing starters Mushaga Bakenga and Bojan Jorgacevic, both due to ineligibility for the competition.

Legia Warsaw - Sporting CP

Oguchi Onweyu and Sporting will try to sneak an important away result on Thursday when they head northeast to take on Polish team Legia Warsaw in a cold-weather encounter.

Sporting's struggles with inconsistency has dropped them well away from the top three spots in Portugal and has them looking yet again resigned to a return to Europe's second-tier competition for next season.

Saturday's shut-out loss to Maritimo Funchal likely ended their final hopes of qualifying for one of the league's three Champions League places, however they should still have little to no problem handling the relatively unfancied Polish team Legia.

With temperatures in Warsaw still well expected to be below freezing at gametime, the encounter will be a flashback for Onyewu to one season ago when he twice made the trip to frozen Russia with former club FC Twente for their eventual knockout victories over both Rubin Kazan and Zenit St. Petersburg.

For Legia, the only major absence is midfielder Miroslav Radović while Sporting are not reporting any major absences.
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A big question for U.S. fans heading into the World Cup is surely on Jozy Altidore and just what is plaguing the young striker at Sunderland.
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