Hidden beneath the wonder that is the UEFA Champions League is the intrigue of the secondary European club competition. The UEFA Europa League has provided many thrilling moments, and like the Champions League, its knockout stage begins this week.
There are 32 teams involved here rather than just 16, so we're going to see a lot of different faces from what many fans are used to. Some clubs, like Chelsea, Napoli and holders Atletico Madrid already have good name recognition.
But with the 32 clubs representing 17 total countries, we encounter some names that might slide under the radar. Teams like Metalist Kharkiv, Fenerbahce and Steaua Bucuresti all won their groups ahead of more fancied names like Marseille and Bayer Leverkusen.
For today, let's focus on some of the players representing these 32 clubs who will make the biggest difference.
Among the big-name players set to make an impact in the Europa League is Napoli striker Edinson Cavani. The Uruguayan hitman is currently the competition's leading scorer with seven goals, including four against group winners Dnipro Dnipropetrovsk.
The Partenopei have been pitted against Czech side Viktoria Plzen, who managed to top Group B over Atletico Madrid. But given the quality of Napoli, expect Cavani to dominate affairs as he has done earlier in the competition, as well as in Serie A play.
Possibly the biggest single player name left in the competition, Atletico's Radamel Falcao has already shown his pedigree in the Europa League. He scored 17 goals in leading Porto to the title in 2011 before bagging 12 in guiding Atleti's charge last year.
He often gets overshadowed in La Liga since Lionel Messi and Cristiano Ronaldo are still around, but his 19 goals are nothing to scoff at, and he has his side in second place. Yes, he is yet to score in this Europa League campaign, but he has too much quality to stay quiet, especially against opponents like Rubin Kazan.
Samuel Eto'o is a name that most soccer fans should recognize, having won Champions League titles with both Barcelona and Inter Milan. Now captaining Russian side Anzhi Makhachkala, he leads the relative European new boys against English stalwarts Liverpool.
Eto'o has three goals already in this campaign, along with loads of talent at his disposal. Liverpool may use squads weaker than those they trot out in Premier League action, and as such the Cameroonian will be ready to pounce. Should he do so, expect his side to give the Reds a tough challenge.
The unheralded name on this list, Brazilian striker Cleiton Xavier leads the line for Ukrainian side Metalist Kharkiv. Going up against French…er, English side Newcastle United, Metalist faces a tough challenge. But they did make a run to the quarterfinals last season, so they have shown it's possible.
Cleiton Xavier is their main source of danger—he notched four goals in the group stage. Much like Champions League mainstays Shakhtar Donetsk, Metalist will rely heavily on their Brazilian influence. And with not much to lose, expect Cleiton to take over and lead his team in their big challenge.