Liverpool and Leverkusen are the standout contenders – Europa League

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Liverpool and Bayer Leverkusen are the standout contenders to win the Europa League this season, with both teams heading east this week for last-16 ties that they are expected to easily win.

Jurgen Klopp’s side is one of four British teams still in the competition, hoping to advance all the way to this season’s final, which will be held in Dublin on May 22.

However, while Brighton and Hove Albion, West Ham United, and Rangers all face difficult last-16 matches, it would be a major surprise if Liverpool faltered against Sparta Prague and missed out on the quarter-final.

Sparta leads the Czech league and has had good results in Europe this season, qualifying from their group ahead of Real Betis and defeating Galatasaray in the knockout round play-offs.

Nonetheless, Liverpool are in fantastic form and remain in contention for a remarkable quadruple in Klopp’s final season as manager at Anfield.

After winning the League Cup, the Reds are currently top of the Premier League and have advanced to the FA Cup final eight.

The biggest risk for them heading to the Stadion Letna in Prague is that their minds will be preoccupied with Sunday’s crucial match against Manchester City, who are just one point behind Klopp’s side at the top of the Premier League.

They lost their last two away games in the group stage, at Toulouse and in Belgium to Union Saint-Gilloise, and Klopp may again opt for the Europa League to give some of his promising young players a chance.

Meanwhile, Mohamed Salah has only played once since returning injured from the Africa Cup of Nations, and this game may come too soon for the Egyptian.

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Liverpool hopes to advance to the quarter-finals on March 15th, when the identity of their potential semi-final opponents will be revealed.

They may still come across Leverkusen, who are having a fantastic season under former Liverpool midfielder Alonso’s leadership.

With 10 games remaining, the 1988 UEFA Cup winners lead the Bundesliga by 10 points.

A first German title is their priority, but they remain in the German Cup and will be fully expected to see off Qarabag of Azerbaijan to reach the quarter-finals in Europe.

The Werkself head to Baku for the second time this season for Thursday’s first leg, having beaten Qarabag home and away in the group stage with a 6-1 aggregate scoreline.

Brighton in Italy

Through to the knockout phase in their first-ever European campaign, Brighton are in Italy to play a Roma side enjoying a revival under Daniele De Rossi.

Thursday’s first leg at the Stadio Olimpico will see De Rossi come up against his friend, the Brighton boss Roberto De Zerbi.

“I have big respect for him. I knew he could be a great coach because as a player he showed an incredible personality,” De Zerbi said recently of his counterpart.

“He thinks the same as me about football. He is a passionate person and we are friends, but I hope to win.”

West Ham, who won last season’s Europa Conference League, are in Germany to face a Freiburg side who are fresh from holding Bayern Munich to a draw in the Bundesliga last weekend.

It will be the third meeting of the clubs in the competition this season, with the Hammers coming out on top both times in the group stage.

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Rangers, beaten Europa League finalists two years ago, surprisingly finished top of their group but their reward is a tough tie against Benfica, with the first leg in Lisbon.

“It will be the first game we will be underdogs, that’s the reality. But that doesn’t mean that we cannot qualify,” Rangers manager Philippe Clement, whose side top the Scottish Premiership, said after the draw.

Benfica’s city rivals Sporting host Atalanta on Wednesday, while AC Milan take on Slavia Prague and Marseille play Villarreal.

The Spanish side’s coach is Marcelino Garcia Toral, who quit as Marseille boss earlier this season after just three months in charge.

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