Europa resumes amid legal storm

BY Jamie Trecker • October 19, 2011

The Europa League resumes Thursday under a darkening legal cloud that threatens to derail an entire group’s worth of matches.

On the field, Anderlecht, Club Brugge, Athletic Bilbao, Sporting and PSV can take healthy steps toward the next round with wins while Stoke and Tottenham can put themselves in pole position in their groups.

But most observers are keeping one eye off the field this week as the legal case brought by Swiss side FC Sion threatens to not only set precedent but upend Group I.

FOX is the new home of the Europa League, bringing you all the action live across the FOX family beginning next season. This year fans can follow all the Europa League action on GolTV, DirecTV, and in real-time on Twitter via @FOXSoccerTrax. After Thursday's third round, Europa League will play resume on November 3rd at noon Eastern.

All eyes remain on the Swiss canton of Vaud, where UEFA head Michel Platini spoke with prosecutors Wednesday about the Sion case. The Swiss side were ejected for fielding ineligible players against Celtic in violation of a transfer ban. As a result, Celtic were installed in their place.

However, Sion subsequently and successfully appealed to Swiss civil courts and had those barred players registered by the Swiss FA, forcing UEFA to draft backup plans. Those plans, sent to the Court of Arbitration for Sport on Monday, would have Sion would either join as a fifth side or through a playoff directly into the 32-team round. This means Celtic would remain in Europe no matter what.

For Celtic, this might be cold comfort: they have been miserable in Europe so far, actually losing that initial playoff to Sion; later falling to Atletico Madrid; then tossing away a win with a late penalty against Udinese at Celtic Park last month. They’ve been little better in Scotland, where they are a full 10 points behind bitter rivals Rangers and were fortunate to have Kilmarnock toss away a 3-0 lead to draw on the weekend. They travel to France to face Rennes in a very tough test.

Tottenham have a chance to seize control of Group A when they host Russia's Rubin Kazan at White Hart Lane in an evening kickoff. Spurs have serious woes in central defense, where only Sebastein Bassong and Younes Kaboul are fit after Ledley King limped off at the weekend. Danny Rose is expected to get another run-out as Spurs look to contain a Russian side that can create chances but more often than not has let opponents off the hook. Rubin can hold and pass the ball with the best of them, but their defense has been leakier than Chicago’s sewer system.

Sacha Kljestan’s Anderlecht will control their own destiny if they pick up their third straight win, facing Sturm Graz in Austria. The Belgians have been dominant in Group L, scoring six goals in their two games and only conceding one. Oguchi Onyewu’s Sporting are in the same position in Group D and should have an easy encounter against Vaslui at home in Lisbon.

The same is not true for Steve Cherundolo’s Hannover, tied on points for a share of the lead in Group B and hosting an erratic Copenhagen side. The Danes have looked brilliant one game and awful the next — they were torched by Standard Liege last time out. Hannover missed a big chance to go second in the Bundesliga this weekend when they lost to Koln, so they are surely looking for redemption.

Jonathan Spector’s Birmingham City are struggling across the board and would relish a win at Club Brugge to give them some semblance of order. They downed Leicester on Sunday but sit deep in the Championship table.

Jozy Altidore’s AZ Alkmaar have a chance to stay top at home against Austria Wien, though Altidore looks unlikely to play, suddenly benched by Gertjan Verbeek. Jermaine Jones’ Schalke travel to Nicosia to face the “other” AEK, Larnaca in a game the Germans are widely expected to win to seal their grip atop Group J. And Clint Dempsey’s Fulham face a tough task against Wisla in Poland. Wisla have yet to take a point but their rabid fans make Krakow a daunting place for any team to play.

Other key games see Stoke host Maccabi Tel-Aviv with a chance to retain their lead atop Group E while PSG look to shake off the yips with a trip to Bratislava to face Slovan. Stoke get Kenwyne Jones back after his absence from a hamstring injury and are otherwise at near full-strength. PSG aren’t as lucky, with four players out due to injury or suspension, the most critical being Momo Sissoko and Mathieu Bodmer. The wealthy Parisians, linked with David Beckham, were sunk last time by group leaders Athletic; Athletic face Red Bull Salzburg in the other fixture.

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