Liverpool, Juventus in unfamiliar territory
Former European champions Liverpool and Juventus will put their domestic problems to one side when they begin their Europa League campaigns on Thursday.
In unfamiliar surroundings after having failed to qualify for this season's Champions League, the two teams head into Europe's second-tier competition struggling for form in their domestic championships.
Liverpool, whose manager Roy Hodgson guided Fulham to the Europa League final last season, is at home to Steaua Bucharest, and Juventus, which has yet to win in Serie A this season, hosts Lech Poznan.
Defending champion Atletico Madrid opens the defense of its title with a trip to Greek side Aris and big-spending English club Manchester City visits Red Bull Salzburg.
Hodgson was named manager of the year in England last season after his exploits in Europe with Fulham, which beat Juventus, Hamburg, Wolfsburg and then-defending champion Shakhtar Donetsk in its fairy tale run to the final.
He left Fulham for Liverpool at the start of July but has had a difficult start at Anfield. The five-time European champions have had a tough run of fixtures in the league, winning just one of their four matches, and were poor in the 0-0 draw at Birmingham on Sunday.
Offseason signing Joe Cole is available after suspension and Hodgson will have to decide whether to start Spain striker Fernando Torres, who is still feeling his way back to full fitness after injury problems.
Napoli hosts FC Utrecht in the other match in Group K.
Juventus, which like Liverpool is usually a Champions League challenger, followed up a 1-0 loss at Bari in its Serie A opener with a 3-3 draw at home to Sampdoria, leaving the Turin club in 15th place.
Coach Luigi Del Neri, who is still without injured Italy goalkeeper Gianluigi Buffon (back), wants to see his side improve defensively against Polish side Lech.
"At this stage of the season, making mistakes helps the team develop but unfortunately we've conceded too many goals," Del Neri said. "I want a nastier team and one able to read the game better."
Striker Amauri remains sidelined after tearing his left thigh muscle.
City, which is in the same group as Juventus, has spent a lot of money on players since the club was taken over by the Abu Dhabi royal family two years ago.
"Because of our profile, each time we play in Europe it will be a kind of cup final for the home team," City captain Kolo Toure said. "Everyone wants to beat us, but we need to begin the group stages with a good result, so we'll be ready."
Salzburg has also spent heavily since being bought and re-branded in 2005 but has still failed to make the Champions League. The Austrian side lost to Hapoel Tel Aviv in the qualifiers this season.
Atletico ended a 14-year wait for silverware and claimed its first European trophy since 1962 when it beat Fulham 2-1 in last season's final in Hamburg.
Buoyed by that success, it has started the Spanish league in great form this season and is only one of two teams to have a perfect record after two matches. Diego Forlan, who scored both goals in last season's Europa League final, has already found the net three times in wins over Sporting Gijon and Athletic Bilbao to lead Atletico to the top of the table.
Other stand-out matches see Sevilla, winner of the UEFA Cup in 2006 and '07, host Paris Saint-Germain in Group J while former European champions FC Porto and PSV Eindhoven take on Rapid Vienna and Sampdoria, respectively.