Top 10: Europa League players to watch

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Football News

The Europa League gets a bad rap, but there's some top talent in this year's competition.

The round of 32 kicks-off this evening in Russia where Liverpool travel to the country's westernmost outpost - St Petersburg.

Brendan Rodgers' side were handed one of the longest, and trickiest, last-32 match-ups, and with one eye on the Premier League, the Reds boss could be forgiven for fielding a weakened team. 

Because, whether you like it or not, the Europa League has a distinctly unglamorous feel about it. 

It doesn't help that the Champions League cast-offs bail into the knock-out round like a group of second-chancers, or that the big teams often rest their best players, even in the key fixtures.

None of the fanfare, and none of that famous, spine-tingling Champions League music.

So, why should you watch it? Well, for starters, last year's matches between Manchester United and Athletic Bilbao produced some of the best football of the season, while the Europa League has been home to Radamel Falcao's magic for the past few seasons. Talking of Falcao, there's also some pretty good players to watch, including the Colombian striker, in this year's competition.

Here are ten reasons to tune in...

Hulk - Zenit St Petersburg

Zenit are currently on their winter break - they don't resume until March -  but Luciano Spalletti has organised a series of friendlies to get them match-fit.

A brief stint in Dubai saw Hulk pick up a slight injury, but he should be fully fit and fired up to face Liverpool.

One of the most imposing, unpredictable forwards in the world on his day, Hulk could tear through this competition and drag Zenit with him. Unfortunately, his stay in Russia so far has been dogged by controversy and he's yet to produce his best football in the mother land.

The Europa League, a competition in which he flourished under Andre Villas-Boas, provides a great opportunity to kick-start his post-Porto career.

Gareth Bale - Tottenham Hotspur

The conversation for Premier League Player of the Year typically wittles down to three names - Robin Van Persie, Luis Suarez and Gareth Bale.

The Spurs winger has scored all of his side's goals in the past three matches, and he's single-handedly reeling in third-placed Chelsea in the Premier League.

Comparisons with Cristiano Ronaldo may be premature, but there's no doubt Bale is one of the most exciting players to watch in the world.

Andre Schurrle - Bayern Leverkusen

Linked with a move to Chelsea for most of last summer, Schurrle decided to stay in Leverkusen, and it's paid off. 

The German side sit third in the Bundesliga, just one point behind reigning champions Borussia Dortmund, and Schurrle has played a huge part.

Stefan Kiessling has taken the plaudits, and his 14 league goals have been instrumental, but Schurrle is the creative hub, and his six goals and five assists have been crucial.

Leverkusen's tie against Benfica should be one of the best of the last-32 round.

Edinson Cavani - Napoli

Serie 'A' top scorer with 18 goals so far, Cavani should fire Napoli in the competition's latter rounds.

Physcially dominant, with superb technique and a wicked eye for goal, the Uruguayan, along with Radamel Falcao, can rightly be considered the best player left in the Europa League.

If truth be told, he's too good for this level. A player of his ability belongs in the Champions League.

Radamel Falcao - Atletico Madrid

Like Cavani, Radamel Falcao is a player playing beneath his level at the moment. That's no disrespect to Atletico Madrid - they're a top club and currently 2nd in La Liga - but Falcao is a Champions League calibre forward.

Of course, if Napoli and Atletico Madrid continue on their current course, both Falcao and Cavani will qualify for next year's Champions League with their current clubs.

But, even if they seal a spot at Europe's top table, expect the likes of Chelsea, Real Madrid and Manchester City to come sniffing around once again. A truly world-class striker who loves the Europa League - he's scored three in the past two finals, winning them both.

Marc-Andre ter Stegen - Borussia Monchengladbach

The German international is the best of a tremendous bunch of young goalkeepers in the Bundesliga, and he's already got Manuel Neuer looking over his shoulder for the Germany national team jersey. The Borussia Monchengladbach stopper is often compared to Oliver Kahn, and has been linked with a move to Barcelona - as a replacement for Victor Valdes.

One for all you budding shot-stoppers to keep your eye on. This 20-year-old goalkeeper is destined for the top. 

Hernanes - Lazio

The Lazio midfielder has criminally few Brazil caps, because Hernanes is a player of real class.

Against Spurs at White Hart Lane earlier this season, he was Lazio's best player in a dour 0-0 draw, and his composure on the ball stood out in a field of mediorce midfield play.

The Italians face Borussia Monchengladbach this week, and Hernanes should be their key player.

He's run the show for the Rome-based club in Serie 'A' this season, with eight goals, three assists and seven man-of-the-match awards. No other Laio player has more than one.

Maxime Gonalons - Lyon

Lyon, in second place in Ligue 1, face Tottenham in the last-32, and Maxime Gonalons will be key to the French club's hopes.

He keeps them ticking over - he's the club's most accurate passer (minimum 15 appearances) with 87.8 per cent completion - and he has the highest match rating at Lyon with 7.33 out of 10 per game.

But the French side have lost their last two league matches, and Spurs will fancy their chances of progressing.

Viktor Fischer - Ajax

The 18-year-old Denmark international has burst on the first-team scene at Ajax this season. Despite a handful of Europa League appearances earlier this term, expect him to play a bigger role in the knock-out rounds.

The teenager has bagged six goals in just 13 appearances, and before he agreed to sign a new Ajax deal, the likes of Manchester United and Barcelona were thought to be interested. A 'new Christian Eriksen' before the old one even got a chance to leave Holland.

Oscar - Chelsea

John Terry said earlier this week that Chelsea are keen to win the Europa League - but hinted that a top four Premier League spot remains the priority.

That means Rafael Benitez could rest key man Juan Mata for the European trips, opening the door for Oscar, who's played a bit-part role under the Benitez regime so far.

He announced his arrival to the Chelsea fans in a big European tie - with two goals against Juventus - could he now repeat that form in the Europa League? If he gets the opportunity, expect big things.

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