UEFA Europa League 2012: Knockout Stage Begins With Away Days For Manchester Clubs

AMSTERDAM, NETHERLANDS - FEBRUARY 15: Head coach Frank De Boer of Ajax listens to questions from the media during a press conference ahead of the Europa League match between Ajax and Manchester United at the Amsterdam Arena on February 15, 2012 in Amsterdam, Netherlands. (Photo by Jasper Juinen/Getty Images)

Manchester United start their Europa League campaign away to Frank de Boer's Ajax, while Manchester City play Porto at the Estadio do Dragao.

Manchester City and Manchester United weren't supposed to be here. City, at least, were in the UEFA Champions League's group of death, but the story was different for United. Matched up with Otelul Galati, Benfica and FC Basel, they were supposed to cruise through to the knockout stages. Instead, neither of the latter two teams lost to the Red Devils over the four matches that United contested against them.

The top two teams in the English Premier League have been sent down to the Europa League. Not only that, but they were handed about the hardest draws they could have hoped for. City will face FC Porto, while United face Ajax. Both English sides will start their campaigns with away games.

Those aren't the only big matches. This year's edition of the Europa League, coupled with the upsets in the Champions League, are evidence that Michel Platini knows what he's doing and that he had an excellent vision for the future all along. There are no minnows left in the competition, and every team that advances to the Round of 16 from the current Round of 32 will be a high-quality side. Everyone left is capable of pulling massive upsets. The Europa League is of a higher quality and more legitimate than it ever has been.

Two games were already played on Tuesday due to scheduling conflicts. Rubin Kazan's tournament appears to be all but over after they lost 1-0 at home to Olympiakos, while the same can be said for Sporting Braga, who lost 2-0 at home to Besiktas.

The other 14 ties get started on Thursday, and the first game is a cracker. Lokomotiv Moscow host Marcelo Bielsa's Athletic Bilbao at 12:00 p.m. ET, an hour before the other games get started. The remaining fixtures are split into two different start times. The most watchable stuff is split up, like the tournament organizers know what we want! Here's the entire schedule of games for Thursday.

Fixtures

Lokomotiv Moscow vs. Athletic Bilbao - 12:00 p.m. ET, 5:00 p.m. ET, 9:00 p.m. local time

1:00 p.m. ET, 6:00 p.m. GMT, 7:00 p.m. CET Games

Ajax vs. Manchester United
AZ Alkmaar vs. Anderlecht
Lazio vs. Atletico Madrid
Legia Warsaw vs. Sporting Lisbon
SV Salzburg vs. Metalist Kharkiv
Viktoria Plzen vs. Schalke 04

3:00 p.m. ET, 8:00 p.m. GMT, 9:00 p.m. CET Games

FC Porto vs. Manchester City
Hannover 96 vs. Club Brugge
Steaua Bucharest vs. FC Twente
Stoke City vs. Valencia
Trabzonspor vs. PSV Eindhoven
Udinese vs. PAOK Salonika
Wisla Krakow vs. Standard Liege

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