Juve meets Fulham for first time

One of five former European champions in Europa League action on

Thursday, Juventus is up against an unfamiliar opponent.

The Italian club beat Ajax in the last round in a rerun of

the 1996 Champions League final but now meets English side Fulham,

which has reached the round of 16 in its first ever season of

continental competition.

The Premier League side surprised Shakhtar Donetsk, which won

the trophy last season before the tournament was revamped as the

Europa League, with a 3-2 aggregate win in the last round and will

likely know more about Juventus than the Italian side does about

its opponent.

“I like to watch football in general so I know Juventus and

the players,” Fulham forward Zoltan Gera said. “I watch a lot of

games from the Italian and Spanish leagues so there won’t be any

surprises because I’ve seen them a few times.”

Thursday’s other seven first-leg matches also feature a mix

of regular European contenders and newly emerging hopefuls.

Five-time European champion Liverpool is at Lille, Benfica

hosts fellow former European champion Marseille, Hamburg hosts

Anderlecht and Wolfsburg goes to Russia’s Rubin Kazan.

Atletico Madrid hosts Sporting Lisbon, Panathinaikos hosts

Standard Liege and Valencia hosts Werder Bremen.

But while Juventus is unlikely to know much about Fulham,

which is managed by former Inter Milan coach Roy Hodgson, Fulham

also has the experience of playing an Italian side in the Europa

League.

“There will be a big difference between Shakhtar Donetsk and

Juventus,” Gera said on Fulham’s Web site. “We played against Roma

twice and played very well and hopefully we can do the same against

Juventus and get a result.”

Fulham, which qualified for the competition by finishing a

best-ever seventh in last season’s Premier League, finished second

to Roma in the teams’ group after one draw and one narrow loss

against the Italian side.

Gera has scored three goals in 11 Europa League matches and

is likely to start in support of striker Bobby Zamora, an outside

contender for a place in England’s World Cup squad.

Liverpool dropped into the Europa League after being

eliminated from the Champions League and its poor season continued

Monday when it lost 1-0 at Wigan in the Premier League.

Coach Rafa Benitez lambasted his players for playing “without

intelligence” and now expects a suitable reaction against a team

fifth in the French standings.

“It was a surprise the other day, but hopefully it was just a

blip and we will see the real Liverpool on Thursday,” Benitez said.

“The players know we have to improve in some specific areas.”

Liverpool midfielder Yossi Benayoun may miss the match

because of an ankle injury but central defender Daniel Agger should

be able to play after staying on the bench Monday because he was

sick.

Benfica’s meeting with Marseille will be the first between

the sides since the Portuguese side won a two-legged European Cup

semifinal in 1990.

Benfica has won its five home matches in the tournament by an

aggregate score of 17-1 but Marseille is unbeaten in its last three

away, making the game at the Stadium of Light tough to call.