UEFA Europa League: Napoli Vs. Villarreal, Lille Vs. PSV Eindhoven Highlight First Knockout Round Ties

This week's UEFA Champions League matches, specifically the one between Barcelona and Arsenal, had big stars on display and the attention of everyone. Thursday gives way to Europe's other continental competition, the UEFA Europa League. Though the names aren't as big and flashy, the matchups in this year's first knockout round are fantastic and just as worthwhile for die-hard footy fans as the matchups in the big sister competition. If you want to see great players transform from stars to super duper mega-stars, the Europa league is must-see TV. This is the competition that brought players like Daniel Alves and Andrei Arshavin out from local hero status and exposed them to the entire world. 

There has already been one match this morning, and forgive me for not covering it. Rubin Kazan have fallen at home to FC Twente, 2-0. The start time of the game was moved up because of the cold temperatures. UEFA and Twente had different thermometers, but reports put the temperature at somewhere between 0 and 10 degrees Fahrenheit. Supposedly, it was a bad game. With temperatures that low, I'll take the word of the people that told me this.

The second game of the day takes place in Ukraine, where FC Metalist Kharkiv take on Germany's Bayer Leverkusen. You'll be happy to know that Kharkiv's temperatures are nothing like Kazan's. It's a wonderful, tropical...16 degrees! Metalist have an impressive South American contingent, including a winner of last year's Copa Libertadores, Taison. They face a very talented Bayer side who are loaded just about everywhere, except striker. That's because they sold Patrick Helmes to Wolfsburg without buying any cover, and they now have two strikers on their roster. Oops.

If you enjoy yelling, screaming, throwing things, and temper tantrums, then it sucks that you're not in the Pacific Northwest and good friends with SBNation Soccer writers Graham MacAree and Kirsten Schlewitz. They will be throwing fits while physically throwing things at their computer monitors as their beloved Napoli takes on Giuseppe "The Situation" Rossi and the rest of his Villarreal squad. This is almost certainly the marquee matchup of this set of fixtures, and it's a bit sad that these teams have to meet this early in the tournament. Most people are already well aware of Marek Hamsik and Edinson Cavani thanks to the World Cup, but this could very well be the year they hit Alves or Arshavin status and get snatched up by a superclub for eleventy billion dollars.

PSV Eindhoven and Lille square off in one of the late games, and they have some players who could become that next big start to emerge from the shadows of the Europa League. Eden Hazard of Lille is widely regarded as one of the best young attacking midfield players in the world, while his teammates Moussa Sow and Gervinho have poured in the goals on a regular basis. PSV's stars Ola Toivonen and Balazs Dzsudzsak have been tearing Holland apart all year, and they have 12 league goals apiece. Both teams lead their respective leagues right now, leading conventional wisdom to state that this is going to be a very good and very close tie.

The action starts at 11 am ET with Metalist vs. Bayer and we'll be following games in all three of the starting timeslots, all the way to the end of the late games at 5 pm ET.

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