Three Spanish clubs at home in Europa League

Madrid, Feb 15 (IANS) Three Spanish football clubs, Celta Vigo, Villarreal and Athletic Club Bilbao are at home as the Europa League begins its knockout phase on Thursday.

Celta, who last week were knocked out of the semi-finals of the King’s Cup, before conceding two late goals in a 2-3 defeat away to Atletico Madrid on Sunday, are first in action as they face Shaktrar Donetsk, reports Xinhua.

Celta have all of their players available for a game against a notoriously tough rival, whose main problem is the lack of competitive match practice due to the winter break in the Ukrainian football season, which has limited them to playing friendly games since the start of the year.

Villarreal also have a difficult tie as they entertain Roma, who are currently second in Italy’s Serie A.

Villarreal have been in limbo for much of 2017 and although they have only lost two of their last nine games, they have also struggled to see rivals off with only one win and six draws in the same period.

Bilbao have theoretically more straightforward opposition as they face Cypriot side APOEL Nicosia. However, the Basque side will have to be wary of a rival that has not lost in three months in domestic competition and which counts on four Spanish players, including veteran striker David Barral in their ranks.

Bilbao have also got a habit of conceding early goals in front of their fans, having to come from behind on no fewer than eight occasions this season, something they would be well-advised to avoid in Europe where keeping a clean sheet at home is vital.