The Europa League and Europa Conference League competitions have reached the next-to-last round of group games. Here are some talking points ahead of Thursday's matches. (More Football News)
WINNING THE GROUP
In the Champions League, winning the group is regarded as important to secure a home match in the second leg of the round of 16. In the Europa League, finishing in first place ensures a team skips a round of games. The eight group winners earn a direct place in the last 16 of the competition whereas finishing in second place only gets a team a playoff match against the clubs who drop into the Europa League as third-place finishers in Champions League groups. This season, that could easily be the likes of Paris Saint-Germain, Manchester United or Newcastle. Liverpool — the top team in the competition at this stage — could qualify as group winner by beating LASK at home, while Bayer Leverkusen and Atalanta will seal first place in their group with wins over Hacken and Sporting, respectively.
Maccabi Haifa (Europa League) and Maccabi Tel-Aviv ( Europa Conference League) have only been able to play in their European competitions since the Israeli league was suspended in early October due to the country's conflict with Hamas in Gaza. Maccabi Haifa returned to domestic action on Saturday for the first time since Oct. 1, beating Hapoel Petah Tikva 2-1 in a match played behind closed doors because of security concerns. The league will resume in full at the weekend. Maccabi Haifa, in last place in its group, will “host” Rennes at the Puskas Arena in Budapest on Thursday because Israel is not allowed to stage any UEFA-sanctioned matches. Maccabi Tel-Aviv is second in its Europa Conference League group ahead of a match against Breidablik in Iceland.
Belgian clubs are quietly having a lot of success in European competitions this season. Three clubs in the Europa Conference League are all unbeaten through four rounds. Club Brugge and Gent top their groups and Genk is third, two points behind Fiorentina before facing the group leader in Italy. There is a longer-term collective reward in sight. Belgium and Turkey started the week in line to earn bonus entries in the revamped 36-team Champions League next season. UEFA will give two of the four extra entries to the countries whose teams combine for the highest average of UEFA ranking points this season. Each win or draw this season for a Belgian club can help ensure the domestic league runner-up this season enters the next Champions League directly, and that a third team will join the qualifying rounds. Brugge is at Besiktas on Thursday and Gent hosts Zorya Luhansk.
Viktoria Plzen is the only team so far to be guaranteed first place in its group in the third-tier Conference League. Club Brugge, PAOK, Fenerbahçe, Fiorentina, Gent, Legia Warsaw and Lille lead their respective groups and could also clinch top spot with one game to spare. A first-place finish earns a direct spot in the last 16, while finishing in second takes clubs into a playoff with third-place finishers in the Europa League.