Manchester clubs headline revived Europa League
Updated: February 14, 2012, 06:45
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LONDON(AP) The presence of England's two leading clubs provides the Europa League with a welcome boost as it resumes this week with a pair of matches fit for the latter stages of the Champions League.
Manchester United, the reigning English champion, and Manchester City, the current Premier League leader, were arguably given the toughest draws possible after dropping down into the Europa League following surprise third-place finishes in their Champions League groups.
United plays Dutch giant Ajax in a matchup between two storied teams who have been crowned European champions seven times between them. The first leg is in Amsterdam on Thursday.
"The Champions League is the best competition in Europe and it's a bit strange to be in the Europa League,'' United striker Javier Hernandez said. "But we want to win every tournament we enter.
"Both teams have a lot of history in Europe so it should be a great game.''
City, which is two points clear of United in the Premier League title race, takes on reigning Europa League champion Porto, while another standout match sees Lazio, which is third in Serie A, host 2010 winner Atletico Madrid.
The return legs are next week.
United is the biggest team to have played in the Europa League in recent years and manager Alex Ferguson is still struggling to accept his side is no longer in the Champions League after its shock exit at the hands of Swiss outsider FC Basel.
"It was a massive disappointment because my feeling is that if we'd gone through, we would have gone on to the final,'' Ferguson said.
The Scottish manager dismissed speculation that he wouldn't take the competition seriously by vowing to put out a strong lineup against Porto.
The Europa League, or its forerunner the UEFA Cup, is one of the few trophies never to have been won by Ferguson.
"I'm definitely treating it seriously,'' he said. "The great thing about Thursday is we don't have a game next Saturday so I can play my strongest team and will play my strongest team.
"The thing is to look forward to it. It's still European football and still a good standard.''
Ajax is struggling in the Eredivisie, winning just one of its last four matches to slump to sixth place and jeopardize its hopes of European football next season.
"They're not having a great time at the moment but I think, playing United, they will be well motivated for it,'' Ferguson said.
Stoke, the third English team in the knockout stage, is at home to Spanish team Valencia, which also dropped into the Europa League after missing out on a top-two finish in the Champions League.
Valencia is clear in third place in the Spanish league but has won only one of its last six matches.
Portuguese team Sporting will have a caretaker coach in place for its first leg at Legia Warsaw on Thursday following the dismissal of Domingos Paciencia on Monday, after just half a season in charge.
Ricardo Sa Pinto leaves his role as youth coach to take over the first team on a temporary basis.
In other first-leg matches, Udinese hosts Greek team PAOK and former European champion PSV Eindhoven is away at Trabzonspor, which narrowly failed to qualify for the last 16 of the Champions League.