UEFA Europa League 2012, Round Of 16 Preview: One Game To Rule Them All

Marcelo Bielsa coach of Chile during the friendly soccer match against United States at The Home Depot Center. (Photo by Kevork Djansezian/Getty Images)

Marcelo Bielsa and Athletic Bilbao travel to Old Trafford to play the round's most intriguing match.

There are eight games in the UEFA Europa League on Thursday, and all of them are decent. For someone who had gobs of time and did not require sleep, all would be worth watching. There really are no duds, and all 16 teams that remain in the competition are very good. Unfortunately for 14 of the teams in the Europa League, everyone is transfixed one one game. Ferguson vs. Bielsa. Javi Martinez vs. the team that's been rumored to be signing him for three years. It's must-watch stuff.

1:00 p.m. ET games

Atletico Madrid vs. Besiktas

TV: GolTV (USA), TLN (Canada)

Things haven't gone well for Atletico Madrid in recent La Liga games, but dropping points to Barcelona and away to Sevilla is understandable. In the Europa League, they were excellent during their last tie against Lazio and they're heavy favorites to go through against Besiktas. Istanbul's 'third' club is very much that by the moment; they're fourth in the Turkish Super Lig and they trail Galatasaray by 16 points.

Metalist Kharkiv vs. Olympiakos

TV: Directv Soccer (USA)

Metalist drew the short stick last season and got bounced out of the Round of 32 by Bayer Leverkusen last year. This year, they drew Salzburg and managed to beat them down, 8-1 on aggregate. This is essentially the same team as they had last year, only they've added Jose Ernseto Sosa, while Taison has actually had some time with the team. Olympiakos held their own in Champions League and comfortably beat Rubin Kazan in the last round, so they should represent a major step up in competition. They have not failed to win a game or conceded a goal since January 28.

Sporting Lisbon vs. Manchester City

TV: Directv Soccer (USA), Telelatino (Canada), ITV4 (UK)

Manchester City had no problems at all with FC Porto, an in-form Portuguese side who plays an attacking 4-3-3, so there isn't a lot of reason to believe that they will struggle with Sporting Lisbon, a team that is not as talented and is not playing as well. Everything about them is sort of a poor-man's Porto. If City gets an away goal -- and they should -- this tie should be over.

FC Twente vs. Schalke 04

TV: Directv Soccer (USA), Euroworld Sport (Canada), ESPN (UK)

This appears to be the most evenly matched and intriguing tie after the much-hyped tie between Athletic Bilbao and Manchester United. FC Twente have enjoyed a fantastic resurgence with the return of Steve McClaren as manager, and they're coming off a stunning 6-2 win over PSV Eindhoven. Meanwhile, a Schalke team that was previously in the Bundesliga title race is currently working on a free fall and will do well to stay in the top four. Schalke's defense is shaky, while Twente is scoring at will, so going for an away goal or two or three is probably a better strategy for the Royal Blues than trying to defend.

3:05 p.m. ET games

Manchester United vs. Athletic Bilbao

TV: Directv Soccer (USA), Euroworld Sport (Canada), Channel 5 (UK)

Here we go, the big one. Marcelo Bielsa brings his entertaining, pressing style of football to Old Trafford. After some early season struggles, Bilbao has settled into Bielsa's system nicely and now looks like the favorite to capture fourth place and a shot at Champions League football in Spain. United are coming off of a Europa League scare against Ajax, but a great win over Tottenham at the weekend. Alex Ferguson's potential team selection is a mystery, and it's not like Bielsa's is set in stone. Two of the world's best tacticians will likely have plenty of surprises to throw at each other in this one.

AZ Alkmaar vs. Udinese

TV: GolTV (USA), ITV 4 (UK)

Udinese and AZ Alkmaar played mostly second teams throughout the group stages to sneak through, but both are likely to put their best foot forward now that they are at this stage. Both teams are in good, but not spectacular form domestically. Udinese is struggling a bit in Italy's race for third, while AZ are currently on top of Holland's six-way title race. Antonio Di Natale missed Udinese's last Europa League in Greece against PAOK, but he's back from injury and will be tough for AZ to contain.

Valencia vs. PSV Eindhoven

TV: Directv Soccer (USA), TLN (Canada), ESPN (UK)

Admittedly, this tie looked a lot more interesting when it was made. Valencia was in absolutely brilliant form besides a loss to Barcelona, and PSV looked like the favorites to take the title in the Netherlands. Since then, Valencia have lost at home to Sevilla and PSV have been trounced by Twente. These are still two quality teams who play extremely entertaining football, however. The trio of Dries Mertens, Ola Toivonen and Tim Matavz have been scoring in bunches for PSV, while Roberto Soldado and Sofiane Feghouli are in fantastic form for Los Che. Expect goals.

Standard Liege vs. Hannover 96

TV: Directv Soccer (USA)

In most years, this would be a solid, watchable match. Sadly for Standard Liege and Hannover, this year's Europa League is one of the strongest ever, and this is by far the least interesting tie of the bunch. Neither team has been in particularly great form in the league, and Standard got by in the last round with a relatively easy draw against Wisla Krakow. Hannover defeated a much better Belgian side in Club Brugge in the last round. Standard play a much different style than their compatriots, however, and their 4-4-2 might present a worse matchup than Brugge's 4-3-3.

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