MICHAEL HADLEY - Wednesday, August 22, 2012
The Europa League playoff round will be teeming with Americans as the final head-to-head games before the group stage gets underway Thursday.
Anzhi - AZ
Red hot Jozy Altidore and AZ Alkmaar will travel across the continent to play emerging Anzhi from Moscow, Russia.
In just two games so far this year, Altidore has scored four goals, leading the Eredivisie and helping AZ to four points. The 6'1 forward scored 22 goals across all competitions in the 2011-12 season, four of which were in the Europa League.
AZ, or Alkmaar Zaanstreek, finished third in the 2011-12 Eredivisie, directly qualifying for the playoff round for their efforts.
Anzhi Makhachakala has gotten off to a slower start in the Russian Premier League taking eight points from five matches, but their 70-million Euro spending spree in the summer of 2011 has significantly increased their talent level.
A fifth place finish for Anzhi last season put them in the second qualifying round of the Europa League, and to this point they have yet to give up a goal in the tournament. A 5-0 aggregate triumph over Honved and a 4-0 victory over Vitesse have shown the continent that Anzhi are serious about the Europa League.
Altidore and AZ will have their work cut out for them, but the match up should be one of the most entertaining of the entire round.
PAOK - Rapid Vienna
After Terrence Boyd acted as the hero in the third qualifying leg, Rapid Vienna will this time take on PAOK of Greece.
Boyd's club was down for the count, trailing Vojvodina 2-1 on aggregate. With time winding down, the young American earned Rapid a penalty kick that was converted for the Austrian victory. For insurance, Boyd scored one of his own just moments later, ensuring a comeback was impossible for the Serbians.
Rapid qualified for the tournament after finishing second in the Austrian Bundesliga, but did so without Boyd. The 21 year old made his professional debut with the club at the beginning of the season, scoring twice and providing an assist in the opener.
Currently in first place in Austria, Boyd and Co. are giving the 17,000-plus at Gerhard Hanappi Stadium something to cheer for.
The Greek league has yet to get underway, but PAOK are fresh off a 6-1 aggregate dismantling of Bnei Yehuda from Israel in the third qualifying round. PAOK finished fifth in the Greek Super League last season.
In each of the last two Europa League competitions, PAOK made it to the round of 32, a clear goal for the club as they enter another incarnation of the tournament.
Slask Wroclaw - Hannover 96
Steve Cherundolo's Hannover squad may have run over St. Patrick's without issue, but the Bundesliga team will have a much tougher task in 2011-12 Polish champions Slask Wroclaw.
Hannover cruised past St. Patrick's of Ireland 5-0 on aggregate in the third qualifying round, their first competition of the 2012-13 season. A simple 3-0 victory in Dublin was matched by a 2-0 triumph at AWD-Arena, where fans of the Reds will be forced to wait another week to see their team again.
Cherundolo, an 84-cap veteran with the US national team, didn't have much to do for the majority of his time in the back line for Hannover.
Slask Wroclaw will likely prove to be far more competitive, however. The Polish champions are no strangers to the Europa League, most recently reaching the playoff round before falling to Rapid Bucuresti of Romania.
Just one match into the Ekstraklasa season, Slask Wroclaw have yet to gain a point from competition but are certainly not to be overlooked by Hannover. Stadion Miejski will be filled with eager Polish fans ready to see a mighty Bundesliga team fall.
Mikkel Diskerud (Rosenborg) and Josh Gatt (Molde) are both recovering from injuries and are unlikely to play in their team's games. Rosenborg, from Norway, will take on Legia Warsaw of Poland, while Molde also from Norway, battles Heerenveen of the Netherlands.
Oguchi Onyewo does not appear to be part of Sporting's plans and he is unlikey to take part in their game against Horsens