by GIANFRANCO PANIZO
This week's soccer spotlight may be focused on the UEFA Champions League action today, but Thursday boasts some quality matches as the UEFA Cup also kicks off its quarterfinal round.
After an eventful fourth round of UEFA Cup action, Thursday's first-leg match-ups look to be no different. With games between Shakhtar Donetsk-Marseille, Werder Bremen-Udinese, Hamburg-Manchester City and Paris Saint-Germain-Dynamo Kiev there is plenty of reason to start your weekend a day earlier.
Despite these matches being full of storylines to follow, the most intriguing factor surrounding the remaining teams is that one of these final eight will win the UEFA Cup for the first time in club history.
The second leg of these series will be played on April 16.
Here is a closer look at the UEFA Cup's quarterfinal match-ups:
Shakhtar Donetsk v. Marseille
Shakhtar Donetsk is riding high after their come-from-behind victory against 2005 UEFA Cup champions CSKA Moscow in the last round. Trailing 1-0 on aggregate after the first leg, the Ukrainian club mustered up two goals in their home fixture to secure their place in the quarterfinals. Shaktar Donetsk will now look to carry over that confidence as they take on a strong Marseille side.
They squeaked by with the smallest of margins, but after eliminating Ajax, 4-3 on aggregate, Marseille looks to pull of a positive result on the road. Midfielder Benoit Cheyrou's performance in this series could be the x-factor for Marseille.
Werder Bremen v. Udinese
Despite Claudio Pizarro's exile from the Peruvian national team, the 30-year-old striker is still playing at a high level. Coming off a hat-trick performance in the Bundesliga this past weekend, Pizarro appears to hitting peak form at the right time which can only benefit Werder Bremen. Having already knocked off AC Milan and with a supporting cast containing the likes of Diego, Torsten Frings and Per Mertesacker it is no surprise as to why Werder Bremen is considered one of the favorites.
Udinese, the only Italian club remaining, will need to negate the offensive firepower that Werder Bremen boasts in order to give themselves a chance in the return leg. If the defense can hold up and if striker Fabio Quagliarella can build on his five goals in the tournament then Udinese will have a chance of leaving Germany with a positive result.
Hamburg SV v. Manchester City
In the key match-up of this round, Hamburg will host Manchester City in the first leg of the quarterfinals. Coming off their impressive disposal of Galatasaray, Hamburg looks to rely on their pair of powerful forwards (Paolo Guerrero and Ivica Olic) to defeat the team that head coach Martin Jol considers a top six side in England.
If Mark Hughes' men are to advance out of this round, they will need much better defending and concentration than they what they showed against Aalborg. Up 2-0 on aggregate, Manchester City collapsed in the final five minutes of the second leg, allowing the Danish team to pull even and force penalties. Thankfully for Manchester City, goalkeeper Shay Given saved them by blocking two shots in the shoot-out.
Paris Saint-Germain v. Dynamo Kiev
Paris Saint-Germain waited until the 81st minute of the second leg to book their place in the quarterfinals. The French club, which is playing at home in the Parc des Princes on Thursday, will need Peguy Luyindula to continue his scoring-streak against a Dynamo Kiev side that allowed three goals when they last played as visitors.
Some fans consider Dynamo Kiev the weakest team remaining, especially after they punched their ticket to the quarterfinals on away goal difference. But Dynamo Kiev has a potent offense that has scored six goals in its past four games. If that offense shows up, the Ukrainian club might do the unthinkable and reach the semifinals.
Who do you see winning on Thursday? Is Werder Bremen destined for the final? Does Marseille have what it takes to reach the semis? Can Manchester City overcome their last round gaffes and get a positive result as visitors?
Share your thoughts below.