Premier League leaders Liverpool will face Sparta Prague in the last 16 of the Europa League, while Brighton face another glamour tie against Roma.

The Reds will travel to the Czech capital for the first leg on March 7, before a return at Anfield a week later in a competition Liverpool have won three times in the past.

Brighton’s maiden European campaign takes them to the Italian capital after they topped Group B containing Marseille, Ajax and AEK Athens.

Europa Conference League holders West Ham face German team Freiburg, while Rangers are up against two-time European champions Benfica from Portugal.

The Europa League final will take place in Dublin on May 22.

Liverpool reached the knockout phase of Europe’s second-tier competition by topping Group E.

Sparta are the reigning Czech champions and qualified for the knockout round play-off by finishing second in Group C. The clubs met in this competition back in 2011.

Brighton face a Roma side which reached the last 16 with a penalty shoot-out victory over Feyenoord in a play-off on Thursday night. The Giallorossi are in transition following the decision last month to sack Portuguese coach Jose Mourinho.

West Ham will feel confident of overcoming Freiburg, having beaten them home and away in the group stage earlier this season, while Scottish Premiership Rangers met Benfica in the Europa League group stage in 2020-21.

Aston Villa were drawn to face Dutch giants Ajax in the last 16 of the Europa Conference League.

Villa progressed as Group E winners and now face the Amsterdam club, who have been champions of Europe four times.

Ajax signed England midfielder Jordan Henderson last month, although he did not feature as they beat Norwegian side Bodo Glimt in extra time to progress from the knockout play-off round.

The first leg will be played in Amsterdam on March 7, with the return at Villa Park on March 14. The Conference League final takes place in Athens on May 29.

Brighton secured a place in the knockout stages of the Europa League after Joao Pedro’s second-half penalty earned an unconvincing 1-0 victory away to 10-man AEK Athens.

In-form forward Pedro converted his fifth goal of the competition in the 55th minute to guarantee the Seagulls a top-two finish in Group B.

Albion were second best before the VAR-awarded spot-kick and fortunate not to fall behind in the closing stages of the first half when AEK forward Steven Zuber struck a post.

The lively hosts were forced to play the final 25 minutes a man down following Mijat Gacinovic’s dismissal for a second yellow card.

Roberto De Zerbi’s men will vie for first place in the pool – and automatic qualification for the last 16 – when Marseille visit the Amex Stadium in the final round of fixtures in two weeks’ time.

Brighton’s maiden European campaign was launched with an underwhelming 3-2 defeat to the Greek champions in September.

Yet the Premier League club arrived at the AEK Arena in control of their own destiny thanks to a battling comeback draw in Marseille and back-to-back wins over Ajax.

Head coach De Zerbi made four changes from Saturday’s 3-2 success at Nottingham Forest, including recalling match-winner Pedro, and saw his injury-hit side start in the ascendancy.

Evan Ferguson was twice blocked as he threatened inside two minutes, while AEK defender Domagoj Vida came close to a calamitous own goal with a firm back pass which had goalkeeper Cican Stankovic scampering across his line.

But the disjointed Seagulls faded from the encouraging start and were in regular danger of falling behind.

AEK forward Zuber forced Albion keeper Bart Verbruggen to turn over a powerful drive before heading narrowly wide from the resultant corner.

Brighton were then lucky not to concede just before the break amid relentless home pressure.

Switzerland international Zuber worked space inside the 18-yard box with quick feet before seeing his angled drive deflect off Lewis Dunk and rattle the left post, with Gacinovic unable to head home the rebound.

Verbruggen was forced to save from Gacinovic after the restart before Brighton snatched the lead against the run of play during a pivotal spell in the contest.

Swiss referee Sandro Scharer initially waved play on when Pedro went to ground under pressure from AEK captain Damian Szymanski before pointing to the spot after viewing a replay of the incident on the pitch-side monitor.

Brazilian forward Pedro duly dispatched his sixth penalty of the season – and third against AEK – by sending Stankovic the wrong way from 12 yards to back up his weekend brace at Forest as a substitute.

Brighton had barely threatened before the opener and their cause was further strengthened just 10 minutes later when Serbia midfielder Gacinovic over-ran the ball and raked his studs into Joel Veltman to receive a second booking.

Seagulls striker Ferguson threatened to double the lead before being repelled as he tried to round Stankovic having been sent clear.

AEK midfielder Orbelin Pineda then flashed wide as the home side pushed for a leveller but Brighton, despite an uninspiring display, held on relatively comfortably to ensure their European adventure continues.

Having been plagued by injuries in recent times, Trinidad and Tobago’s Levi Garcia recently made a return to competitive action for his club AEK Athens and is now eagerly looking forward to representing the Soca Warriors in their bid for Copa America qualification.

Garcia, who only featured in five previous games for reigning Greek champions AEK Athens this season, made a brief appearance in the club’s 1-1 stalemate away to AE Kifisia in the Super League on Saturday.

With that blow out run now under his belt, the 25-year-old, who assisted AEK to the Greek double last season when he scored 18 goals across all competitions, said he is working his way back to peak form, as he intends to do what he does best, give his all for both club and country.

"I have been working really hard lately to get fit so things have been going well," Garcia told T&T Newsday.

Garcia missed Trinidad and Tobago’s four group stage matches in the Concacaf Nations League, as they placed second in Group A of League A, which secured them a spot in the upcoming quarterfinals of the tournament.

The pacy attacker is hoping his Soca Warriors teammates can continue the steady work as he continues to work his way back to full fitness.

"It’s been really good to see the guys performing and hopefully we can continue to do positive things for ourselves and future players,” Garcia stated.

Angus Eve’s Trinidad and Tobago outfit are set to contest a pivotal Nations League quarterfinals encounter against the United States, the first away on November 16, with their home leg at the Hasely Crawford Stadium falling on Garcia's 26th birthday on November 20.

With the prospect of qualification for Copa America 2024 in the air, Garcia is ready for the grand occasion.

"It's a big game against the US and we're all looking forward to it. I think everyone is (optimistic about our chances of qualifying for the Copa America 2024). That will be a great platform to showcase ourselves but first we need to take it one game at a time,” he noted.

The four teams advancing from the quarterfinals will qualify for both the Nations League semi-finals and the Copa tournament. The four losing quarterfinalists will have a second opportunity to qualify for Copa 2024 through a single-match, direct elimination play-off in March next year.

Roberto De Zerbi congratulated his Brighton players in the dressing room for their performance despite losing 3-2 to AEK Athens on their European debut.

Despite dominating the ball and dictating the shape of the game in wet and difficult conditions at the Amex Stadium, Brighton were undone by an AEK side who made the best of what little they created and were clinical when their moments came.

First, the right-back Djibril Sidibe dashed into the box unmarked at a corner and flew into a superb diving header that nestled in the corner.

It was a lead they twice should have doubled when striker Levi Garcia went through on goal, first denied by goalkeeper Jason Steele then sliding the ball beyond the post as two glorious chances were wasted.

Brighton hit back through a penalty from Joao Pedro after a VAR check, the same means by which they levelled for a second time after the break. In between, Mijat Gacinovic had restored AEK’s lead, sliding in at a free-kick to finish from near the penalty spot.

Brighton were missing the injured Lewis Dunk in defence and his absence was felt again when substitute Ezequiel Ponce was given space on the counter-attack to win it for the Greek champions late on.

“We conceded three goals,” said De Zerbi. “Two goals in set pieces and one incredible goal, the third. We made some mistakes in the (final third) of the pitch, for example the chance of Joao Pedro in the second half, or the chance for Igor in the first half. But in terms of quality of play we played a very good game, I think.

“I’m really proud for the performance. I think we showed not the right experience, or maybe not the same experience as AEK Athens.

“But for the rest I think we played with personality and with the right attitude. We controlled the game, we dominated the game. And we are sad for the result.

“We are sad because we couldn’t make happy our fans, ourselves, our club. But we have to analyse the performance and the performance was good.

“We can learn. We have to learn. We can improve, but it’s difficult to accept this defeat. I congratulated the players 10 minutes ago, because I can’t be happy when we win at Old Trafford and sad today if the performances are both good performances.

“We have to know, and we knew before the game, that AEK had two situations where they could score; set-pieces and counter-attack. And when we’re defending set-pieces against this team, we have to be more focused, more with the right attitude, more smart to defend the set-pieces.”

De Zerbi confirmed that Dunk and striker Evan Ferguson had been ruled out of contention earlier on Thursday.

“Dunk couldn’t play because after the game with Man United he felt a problem,” he added. “This afternoon Evan had a temperature, he is ill.”

AEK manager Matias Almeyda reflected on a win which he hoped will help cement his team’s reputation as a serious European force this season.

“We work on the basis of playing a type of football based on team work,” he said. “I live my life the way I manage the team. I like to respect people and I like to be respected. We want to be respected in Europe and we wanted to get a result to gain that respect.

“We have been working together for over a year. We came here in order to play our usual game. The opposition on a number of occasions forced us to play a different kind of game. But it’s spirit of the team, a fighting spirit, and that’s what we have managed to achieve. To keep on fighting.”

Brighton were taught a harsh lesson on their Europa League debut as Greek champions AEK Athens ran out 3-2 winners after a pulsating encounter at the Amex Stadium.

Substitute Ezequiel Ponce struck the winner on the counter-attack six minutes from the end of normal time as Roberto De Zerbi’s side failed to heed the signs after falling behind twice previously in the first half.

Joao Pedro equalised from the penalty spot in the first period then again in the second, both times after VAR had intervened in Brighton’s favour.

The hosts had the better of the play but they lacked the clinical edge of AEK, who scored with two excellent finishes from set-pieces. The first goal was a superb header from Djibril Sidibe, followed by a sliding finish from Mijat Gacinovic as Brighton were undone by nerves and their own naivety.

The opening goal came after 11 minutes and was against the early run of the play.

AEK’s first attack saw them win a corner on the left after a low cross was turned behind. As the ball was whipped in, no one had picked up the lurking Sidibe who with a late dash into the box caught Brighton out with a superb 15-yard diving header that whistled past Jason Steele.

De Zerbi’s side had been badly caught out, and seconds later it could have been two. Levi Garcia, who would torment Brighton in the first period with pace and clever movement, raced beyond the defence and went through on goal, but Garcia’s tame finish was too close to Steele.

Garcia wasted another glorious chance to double the lead from an almost identical position, this time slipping his effort just beyond the far post.

Pedro nodded wide from a free header inside the six-yard box as Brighton finally put together an attack to concern the AEK defence, but within a minute he had made amends for his profligacy.

When defender Ehsan Hajsafi dangled a leg as Pedro looked to cut inside to shoot the referee initially booked the striker for diving. But after a pitchside VAR review the booking was rescinded, Pedro stepped up and coolly rolled his penalty beyond Cican Stankovic to score Brighton’s first European goal.

At that stage it appeared that they had had their reprieve for the way they had left themselves vulnerable to AEK’s threat, but five minutes before the break there was another fine delivery from a set-piece and another critical lapse in concentration.

Brighton held a high line on the edge of their own box as a free-kick was whipped in from 40 yards out, but as blue shirts charged back towards their own goal none could prevent Gacinovic from sliding to get a foot on the ball to turn it beyond Steele.

There was still time for Jan-Paul Van Hecke to deny Orbelin Pineda what would have been a deserved third for AEK on the stroke of half-time.

There was relief then around the Amex when the referee was directed pitch-side for another VAR review after Pedro’s tumble inside the box under Damian Szymanski’s challenge had at first been waved on.

As in the first half, the decision was overturned, and Pedro got to his feet to replicate his earlier composed finish to draw Brighton level again.

De Zerbi was booked for remonstrating too forcefully on the touchline, before Pedro was handed the chance to seal his hat-trick and an opening night win when he spring the offside trap and went one-on-one with Stankovic. This time the goalkeeper got the better of their duel.

Then came AEK’s final sting. A raking ball from the back was nodded out wide by Ponce to Niclas Eliasson, who returned the ball to his fellow substitute. Although Steele blocked Ponce’s shot, the rebound ricocheted off the Argentinian and into the net for the winner.

Bundesliga sensation Jude Bellingham has a long list of admirers back in England.

The Three Lions midfielder's contract at Borussia Dortmund runs until 2025.

Bellingham left England when he moved from Birmingham City for Dortmund in 2020.

TOP STORY – REDS LEADING BELLINGHAM PURSUIT

Liverpool are leading the race to sign teenager Bellingham from Dortmund, reports The Telegraph.

Manchester United are also interested in the 19-year-old, who has started all nine of Dortmund's games this season.

Bellingham may be allowed to leave Dortmund in 2023, and the German club are expecting a bid from the Reds.

ROUND-UP

– The Mirror claims Liverpool are also mulling over a move for new Wolves signing Matheus Nunes as an alternative to Bellingham, should they miss out.

– Rafael Leao has attracted interest from Chelsea and Manchester City but will snub both to stay with Milan on a new long-term deal, according to La Gazzetta dello Sport.

– Sport claims Barcelona are keeping an eye on Monaco's Brazilian left-back Caio Henrique.

– Free agent Danny Rose has verbally agreed to join AEK Athens, reports The Sun. The ex-Tottenham defender left Watford earlier this month.

Chelsea were one of the big spenders during the transfer window with Pierre-Emerick Aubameyang headlining their deadline-day business.

The Blues also signed Wesley Fofana and Denis Zakaria over the past week after losing several key players.

Chelsea have started the new Premier League season with mixed results, with Saturday's 2-1 win over West Ham improving their record to 10 points from six games.

TOP STORY – CHELSEA LODGED AUDACIOUS DEADLINE DAY LAVIA BID

Chelsea tried to sign Belgium youth international Romeo Lavia from Southampton on deadline day less than two months after he joined the Saints from Manchester City, reports the Daily Echo.

The Blues were one of the big spenders late in the transfer window, and submitted a £50million proposal for the 18-year-old midfielder.

Southampton rejected the proposal having signed Lavia from City for £12m in July. City retain a buy-back clause for Lavia who has played five times for Southampton this season.

ROUND-UP

– El Nacional reports Arsenal attempted to sign Barcelona's Ferran Torres with an audacious €30m bid before the close of the transfer window on Thursday. The Spaniard joined Barca from Manchester City in January but has not been a regular starter and the Gunners tried to convince the Catalans to let him go.

Tottenham tried to sign Ukrainian midfielder Ruslan Malinovskyi from Atalanta but the Serie A club refused to sell him, claims Fabrizio Romano. Spurs may re-open the situation in January.

Besiktas are in discussions with Sassuolo's Turkey international centre-back Kaan Ayhan about a move to Turkey according to Ajansspor. The Turkish transfer window is open until September 8.

– L'Equipe claims that former Everton and Lille full-back Djibril Sidibe will join Greek club AEK Athens , having left Monaco when his contract expired at the end of last season.

 

Porto and Sporting CP face a one-year ban from playing in Europe if they fail to pay outstanding debts by the end of next month.

UEFA on Friday revealed sanctions that have been issued to eight clubs for breaches of Financial Fair Play (FFP) regulations.

Primeira Liga leaders Porto and second-placed Sporting have been fined €300,000 and €250,000 respectively and will not play in the next UEFA club competition they qualify for in one of the next three seasons unless they can prove by January 31, 2022 they have settled "outstanding overdue amounts."

LaLiga side Real Betis have been hit with a €250,000 fine, while CSKA Sofia and CD Santa Clara were both ordered to pay €75,000 and Mons Calpe SC must fork out €15,000.

All of those clubs also face missing out on playing in Europe in either the 2022-23, 2023-24 or 2024-25 season if they qualify, but have not paid what they owe.

FC Astana and CFR 1907 Cluj were fined €150,000 and €200,000 respectively, but were not threatened with a ban.

The newly established First Chamber of the UEFA Club Financial Control Body (CFCB First Chamber) also found that AEK Athens did not comply with several club licensing and FFP rules.

The Greek club agreed to pay an unconditional financial contribution of €1.5million, while they will also withhold 10 per cent of UEFA prize money they make in the next UEFA club competition they qualify for.

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