LONDON (Reuters) - There is light at the end of a very long tunnel as the Europa League, which began last July before the World Cup final had been played, reaches the last 16 this week.
Having ploughed through qualifying, an interminable group stage and a knockout round buoyed by the arrival of the Champions League failures, the competition has finally reached a recognisable shape with some very recognisable names among the contenders.
Six winners of the UEFA Cup, the competition’s forerunner, are in action on Thursday with two of them - CSKA Moscow and Porto - facing each other.
Liverpool, three-times winners as well as five-times European champions, visit Braga in Portugal in one of the most attractive ties of the round.
Liverpool have made painful progress through the competition to date but, having shown a complete turnaround in their domestic form since the arrival of manager Kenny Dalglish, there is a new eagerness about their European campaign.
They go into Thursday’s game on a real high after beating arch rivals Manchester United 3-1 in the Premier League on Sunday, though they did suffer a setback in the game when defender Fabio Aurelio tore a hamstring and will be out for a month.
It was a similar story for Braga, who beat Benfica 2-1 but saw left back Silvio, midfielders Custodio and Vinicius and winger Alan all suffer injuries that threaten their involvement on Thursday.
Benfica’s defeat left them 11 points behind leaders Porto in the Portuguese Premier League and coach Jorge Jesus said their focus is now on the Europa League and two domestic cups.
Argentine duo Pablo Aimar and Eduardo Salvio are expected to recover from injury to play against Paris Saint Germain after both missed the Braga game, but captain Luisao and Paraguay striker Oscar Cardozo are doubtful with thigh injuries.
PSG coach Antoine Kombouare has different priorities as he is resting midfielders Claude Makelele and Ludovic Giuly, as well as striker Guillaume Hoarau for their trip to Lisbon.
PSG, who are fifth in the Ligue 1 standings following a 1-0 defeat at AJ Auxerre last weekend, will also have to make do without the suspended midfielder Jeremy Clement.
Porto complete Portugal’s triple assault when they visit CSKA Moscow, with leading scorer Hulk back in the starting 11 having missed their 2-0 home win against Guimaraes through suspension.
Villarreal are without suspended Spain left back Joan Capdevila for their trip to Bayer Leverkusen, unbeaten in the competition.
“If the match is similar to the one in Naples we will defend like dogs to get through the tie any way we can,” said midfielder Borja Valero, after the Spaniards drew 0-0 at Napoli before winning the home leg 2-1 in the round of 32.
Leverkusen will be without central defender Manuel Friedrich, who broke his shoulder blade in their 3-0 win over VfL Wolfsburg, and Tranquillo Barnetta, who is recovering from a knee operation.
Russia also have three contenders, with Spartak Moscow travelling to Ajax Amsterdam and Zenit St Petersburg, 2008 champions, winners of all six group games and sweeping all before them domestically, also in the Netherlands against Twente Enschede.
PSV Eindhoven, who host Rangers, complete the Dutch lineup.
Manchester City, desperate for some silverware to show for their huge investment, have a tough trip to Dynamo Kiev, who scored eight against Besiktas in the last round.
Editing by Greg Stutchbury