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SPORTS STORY

Europa hopes

The Europa League is back and the continentís second competition is set to feature British bucks, Italian experience and Spanish style. Gareth Bracken has been assessing the field

It may be the somewhat less-popular little brother of the Champions League Ė the undisputed head of the European footballing family Ė but that doesnít mean that the Europa League isnít a highly sought-after trophy in its own right. Even a cursory glance at the betting confirms this, with big names from across the continent all in the running.

England boasts its own contingent, as ever, with Premier League sides Manchester City, Liverpool and Aston Villa all featuring in the upper echelons of the betting. City (15/2 Coral) are the tournament favourites and seem a reasonable bet at the price given their pots of cash and desperation for a trophy. A number of their players have Champions League experience, which can only help. The Blues would surely be disappointed not to reach the last four at least.

Liverpool (12/1 Coral) have their own share of big-name players and are led by a manager who reached the final of this competition last year with Fulham. However, there has been talk that Roy Hodgson may use the competition as a chance to develop/reward his reserve and youth players while he concentrates on the league. The qualifying round provided no real clues, with the Reds playing a weakened side in the first leg and a stronger one in the second.

Aston Villa (25/1 various) have been hit by managerial instability and, with an apparent lack of transfer funds, would surely be happy with a spot in the knockout stages while they focused on Premier League progress.

Of the foreign challengers, Juventus (14/1 various) boast some quality players and appeal at the price. Buffon, Felipe Melo, Del Piero and Trezeguet are names that roll off the tongue, even if some are in the autumn of their careers. At this level of competition these players will be feared and the Italians should feature in the latter knockout stages at the very least.

Atletico Madrid (16/1 Stan James) lifted the trophy last season and will be looking to emulate their compatriots Sevilla (2006, 2007) by winning the competition twice in a row. A ninth place league finish was hardly impressive however and their entry into this seasonís Europa League was only gained by virtue of their win last year. Certain teams do have a knack of becoming knockout specialists, and a team featuring World Cup Golden Ball winner Diego Forlan should never be dismissed, but there are better options out there.

Fellow Spanish sides Villarreal (25/1 Sky Bet) and Getafe (50/1 Victor Chandler, Stan James) could represent more enticing value. They finished eight and 11 points ahead of Atletico in the league respectively and are definitely worthy of consideration. Villarreal have built a respectable side and havenít finished outside the top seven in La Liga since 2004. Getafe may not have any big-name stars but could be an interesting each-way shout if handed a favourable draw.

Porto (25/1) won this competition and indeed the Champions League under Jose Mourinho and current manager Andrť Villas Boas has a decent starting eleven. Players like Raul Meireles, Falcao and Hulk can shine at this level and the Portuguese side could well make a run to the latter knockout stages if they can avoid a clash with one of the big-name favourites earlier on.

Stuttgart (28/1 Ladbrokes, Bet365), Leverkusen (33/1 Victor Chandler), and Dortmund (33/1 various) spearhead the German challenge. Leverkusen only missed out on a Champions League play-off spot by a couple of points and the return of midfielder Michael Ballack is a huge boost. Stuttgart have a better squad on paper than Dortmund but neither look particularly well-set for a genuine trophy tilt.

The bigger guns tend to stroll through the group stages of the Europa League but the knockout rounds can provide shocks. A great underdog story like that of Fulham last season is always a possibility, although it also seems likely that one of the big-hitters will make it through to the last four at least, and probably the final.

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