Champions League ticket at stake for AC Milan, Arsenal
By KAREL JANICEK
It's the only European trophy AC Milan has not won, yet there's more at stake for the Italian powerhouse and some other big teams when the Europa League kicks off its knockout stage this week.
Once treated with contempt by heavyweights, Europe's second tier competition carries more value since UEFA's decision to award a Champions League qualifying place to the winner, which started with the 2015-16 season.
After a poor start to the season, heavy spending Milan is showing signs of improvement under new coach Gennaro Gattuso. But still seventh in Serie A, winning the Europa League might be the best option for the seven-time European champion to return to the Champions League.
Milan faces Bulgaria's Ludogorets Razgrad in the round of 32 on Thursday.
Milan's situation might sound familiar to Arsene Wenger, whose Arsenal side is losing hopes of making the top four in the Premier League. The London club is in sixth place, seven points from the Champions League places.
"I'm not a great fan of the Europa League being a qualifier of the Champions League," Wenger said.
But Wenger might want to follow the example of his rival, Jose Mourinho, who changed his negative view of the Europa League after a 2-0 victory over Ajax in the final last year saved his first season at Manchester United.
Arsenal, the only English club remaining in the competition, opens the second round against Sweden's Ostersund.
"Looking at their results in Europe, they have done well so we have to prepare properly," Wenger said about the club led by English manager Graham Potter, a former Football League defender.
It will be interesting to see if Wenger sticks to his habit of fielding a reserve team for the Europa League matches. What proved effective in the group stage might not be enough in the knockout rounds.
Wenger will have to make changes upfront after his two regular strikers in the group stage, Olivier Giroud and Theo Walcott, left the Emirates Stadium for Chelsea and Everton, respectively.
The competition is spiced up with some big names that dropped down from the Champions League.
Two of them immediately face each other, Italy's Serie A leader Napoli and Leipzig, the second team in the Bundesliga.
Atletico Madrid, the 2010 and 2012 Europa League winner, was drawn to face Copenhagen.
Borussia Dortmund, which is third in the Bundesliga after two straight wins, faces Italy's Atalanta.
Also, it's Marseille vs. Braga; Celtic vs. Zenit St. Petersburg; and Lyon vs.Villarreal.
Fifteen of the 16 opening legs will be played on Thursday, with the return games on Feb. 22. In Tuesday's only match, Red Star Belgrade plays CSKA Moscow.
Updated February 13, 2018