Premier League teams aim to excel in Europa League

MICHAEL BOTSFORD Published:

LONDON (AP) -- Premier League rivals Liverpool and Tottenham head into the final group matches of the Europa League on Thursday, with both well-placed to join the likes of Inter Milan, Lyon and reigning champions Atletico Madrid in the knockout stage.

The last five of 24 places are up for grabs as the competition prepares for the round of 32 to be played in February.

Liverpool managed only a second win in 10 games at the weekend, but has a good chance to progress to the knockout stage in Europe.

Liverpool travels to Italy to face an already-eliminated Udinese, looking to stay ahead of a Young Boys side that plays an already-qualified Anzhi Makhachkala of Russia. Liverpool and Young Boys are level on seven points from five games but the English club has the edge on the Swiss team in a tiebreaker by virtue of a better head-to-head record.

Danish international defender Daniel Agger, who scored Liverpool's winner in its 1-0 weekend victory over Southampton, was upbeat about Liverpool's prospects.

"Confidence is a big thing here and we have it," Agger said. "We are brave on the ball, we want to go forward. We aren't just playing it around."

"That's a big difference from last season. There is more control and we are creating more chances than last season."

In Group J, Tottenham hosts Panathinaikos. A win for either side would send them through, although Spurs need only a draw to advance.

Tottenham started November badly, losing three league games in a row. Since then, manager Andre Villas-Boas has reversed his team's fortunes with three consecutive victories.

Striker Jermaine Defoe is counting on the home fans to help the north London club qualify.

"We always have fantastic support and that helps the lads to perform... The European nights are special and there is so much history here," Defoe said.

"We want to get through to the knockout stage of the competition and as we've said all along, we want to do something special this season. Things are going well at the moment and we've just got to keep it going."

Although other groups have long been decided, qualification is going down to the wire in Group E where two clubs from three -- Steaua Bucharest, VfB Stuttgart and Copenhagen -- will make it through.

Steaua has rattled up 10 points so far but still needs to finish the job away to Copenhagen, while Stuttgart is at home to Norway's Molde.

In Group G, the final games will decide if FC Basel or Videoton makes it to the next round. Basel is two points ahead and travels to Belgium to face already-qualified Genk -- needing only a draw to make progress.

If Basel loses, Videoton can advance by beating Sporting Lisbon, which has already been eliminated.

The 24 teams that progress will be joined by the eight third-place finishers from the Champions League. The draw for the round of 32 will be held on Dec. 20.