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The battle to reach the knockout stages continues in the Europa League
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Europa League: Juventus hoping for European boost

The Europa League returns on Thursday with the first legs of the eight knockout round play-offs and there is a big fixture taking place in Turin, as Juventus host Nantes at 20:00.

Along with that eagerly anticipated clash in Italy, Manchester United travel to Barcelona, Union Berlin head to Ajax, FC Salzburg host Roma and Shakhtar Donetsk take on Rennes - with that quartet of games kicking off at 17:45.

Barcelona and United have been involved in some entertaining meetings over the years, having first clashed in the quarter-final stage of the 1983/84 European Cup Winners' Cup, and Thursday will mark the 14th competitive fixture between the two footballing heavyweights.

The other three 20:00 contests will see Monaco head to Germany to face Bayer Leverkusen, Sporting welcome Midtjylland to the Estadio Jose Alvalade and PSV head to Sevilla, who are 25/1 To Win Outright a record-extending seventh Europa League title this year.

Juventus put all their eggs in Europa League basket

WhatJuventus v Nantes
WhereAllianz Stadium, Turin
When20:00, Thursday 16th February
How to watchBT Sport
OddsJuventus 4/11, Draw 4/1, Nantes 15/2 

Juventus are enduring a disappointing Serie A season, as they are down in ninth position and 12 points off the top-four positions, so hopes of a place in Champions League 2023/24 rest largely on whether they can lift the Europa League trophy, which they are 10/1 To Win Outright.

After going two games without a victory, The Old Lady have responded with three straight wins over Lazio in the Coppa Italia and Salernitana and Fiorentina in the league - all of those coming to nil.

Up next is a visit from Ligue 1 outfit Nantes, who are also on a three-game winning run across all competitions and haven't tasted defeat in their last seven away matches.

Antoine Kombouare's troops finished second in Europa League Group G and although they will fancy their chances of progressing, they will need to plug the gaps at the back.

Nantes conceded 11 goals during the group stages - only three teams conceded more - and they may struggle to keep out a Juventus side that have only failed to score in one of their last 21 competitive home assignments.

A Juventus win with over 2.5 goals at 6/5 in Result/Total Goals looks worthy of consideration.

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First big test for Heitinga

WhatAjax v Union Berlin
WhereJohan Cruijff ArenA, Amsterdam
When17:45, Thursday 16th February
How to watchBT Sport
OddsAjax 10/11, Draw 13/5, Union Berlin 3/1

After a poor run of form, Ajax sacked Alfred Schreuder at the end of January, bringing an abrupt end to his short time at the helm after he was given the responsibility of filling Ten Hag's shoes.

John Heitinga has been appointed until the end of the campaign, a promotion from his role as Jong Ajax head coach, and he has started off with four straight victories in which his side have scored 13 times.

While the upturn in results has de Godenzonen back in the Eredivisie title race, it's worth noting they have faced no team higher than fifth-placed FC Twente during this winning run - a fixture which came in the KNVB Beker - and they face a real test to overcome a high-flying Union Berlin.

The Iron Ones only made their Bundesliga debut in the 2019/20 season, but they have enjoyed a meteoric rise since reaching Germany's top flight, going from finishing 11th in that maiden season to now sitting second in the table - just a point off table-toppers Bayern Munich.

Urs Fischer's side chalked up their sixth straight victory across all competitions last time out with a 2-1 win at RB Leipzig, a result which also made it three away wins on the trot for them.

Keeping out a free-scoring Ajax side could be tough, but Union are a force to be reckoned with and the away win with both teams to score in Result/Both Teams to Score at 6/1 is appealing.

Monaco head to Germany in fine form

WhatBayer Leverkusen v Monaco
WhereBayArena, Leverkusen
When20:00, Thursday 16th February
How to watchBT Sport
OddsBayer Leverkusen 19/20, Draw 11/4, Monaco 11/4

Ligue 1 outfit Monaco are riding high after their 3-1 victory over Paris Saint-Germain last time out kept their slim title hopes alive.

Philippe Clement's side are on a six-game unbeaten run - winning four and drawing two - in which they have scored an impressive 18 goals.

However, only one clean sheet has been kept during this streak and that may offer some hope to Bayer Leverkusen, who beat TSG Hoffenheim 3-1 last time out to snap their two-match losing run.

Leverkusen have struggled for consistency this season and a defence that has conceded 32 times in the Bundesliga - the worst record of the teams in the top eight - is a major reason for this.

Goals look like they will be on the agenda on Thursday and over 2.5 at 8/11 in Goals Over/Under could be the way to go in this one.

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