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Liverpool set to clinch place in Europa League knockouts

Liverpool and their Premier League counterparts West Ham United and Brighton can all clinch spots in the knockout phase of the Europa League this Thursday with a round of group games to spare, while troubled Ajax face elimination from the competition.

The Anfield side could have already wrapped up their place in the next round earlier this month, but they succumbed to a 3-2 defeat by Toulouse amid a euphoric atmosphere in France, albeit only after having a last-gasp equaliser ruled out by the VAR.

That victory was celebrated, understandably, by Toulouse and their supporters as one of their greatest ever results, but it should go down as nothing more than a minor setback for Jurgen Klopp and his team.

Having won their previous three outings in Group E despite massive changes to the line-up each time, Liverpool need only avoid defeat at home against LASK of Austria in order to secure progress before their final match away to Union Saint-Gilloise in Belgium next month.

Indeed they will qualify regardless provided the Belgians do not win in Toulouse at the same time, but there is also a chance the Reds could wrap up top spot in the group — that would ensure they advance straight to the last 16 rather than having to participate in an extra round of play-offs.

While Liverpool sit just two points off the top of the Premier League, LASK are third in the Austrian Bundesliga, five points behind leaders Red Bull Salzburg.

Their biggest threat is likely to come from goal-scoring midfielder and captain Robert Zulj, but it would be an enormous shock if they took anything from their trip to England.

West Ham are in a similar position to Liverpool, knowing a win this midweek will take them through from Group A but that they could qualify regardless if results elsewhere go their way.

The Hammers will be in northern Serbia to take on TSC Backa Topola, a team they defeated 3-1 in London in September but who have just claimed a notable 4-0 win away at domestic league leaders Partizan Belgrade.

David Moyes’s team are level atop their group with Freiburg and will qualify for the knockout phase come what may as long as the Germans avoid defeat at home to Olympiakos of Greece.

Ajax revival

Brighton and Hove Albion will extend their first ever European adventure into the new year if they get the better of AEK Athens away in Group B, which would be a measure of revenge after they lost 3-2 when the sides met in England in September.

Roberto De Zerbi’s side looked up against it when they followed that by drawing 2-2 in Marseille, but they have since beaten Ajax twice to find themselves eyeing the next round.

Beaten Europa League finalists in 2022, Rangers have a chance to qualify this Thursday if they win at home to Aris Limassol of Cyprus in Group C.

Rangers have an impressive record at home in the Europa League, winning seven and drawing one of their last eight matches there in the competition.

They did lose 2-1 away to Aris in October, but that was before the appointment of Philippe Clement as manager, since when they are unbeaten.

“It is a massive game at Ibrox on Thursday where we need to get three points to put us in a good position in the group and that is all our main focus now,” captain James Tavernier said after Sunday’s 1-1 draw at Aberdeen.

Marseille and last season’s runners-up Roma can also qualify, but Ajax need to beat the French club away to keep alive their chances.

It has been a dreadful season so far for the Dutch giants, although they are undergoing a revival domestically, with three wins and a draw in their last four games since John van’t Schip became coach.

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