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.