GENEVA (AP) — Russian clubs continue their three-pronged attack on the Europa League on Thursday, while pressing a case for UEFA to allow their national league to merge with Ukraine.
Zenit St. Petersburg, Rubin Kazan and Anzhi Makhachkala each take clear leads into their last-32, second-leg matches against Liverpool, defending champion Atletico Madrid and Hannover, respectively.
Russia's strength in the second-tier UEFA competition helps mask its absence from the elite, 16-team Champions League knockout stage.
In other Europa League matches, Champions League winner Chelsea has a 1-0 lead against visiting Sparta Prague and 2010 European champion Inter Milan takes a 2-0 lead to Romania's Cluj.
Napoli, which is second in the Serie A, tries to overcome a 3-0 deficit at Viktoria Plzen. Lazio and Borussia Monchengladbach resume after a thrilling 3-3 draw in Germany.
Tottenham will defend a 2-1 first-leg lead away to Lyon, and the winner is likely to face Inter. UEFA already drew the last-16 pairings.
In Russia, state-run gas supplier Gazprom, Zenit's main financial backer and a Champions League sponsor, has been seeking support for a combined league with top Ukrainian teams which could later expand to include other former Soviet Union republics.
Clubs have tentatively backed a project which could generate bigger crowds and commercial appeal, and help them compete in UEFA competitions against opponents from leagues already cashing in on worldwide broadcasting rights deals.
Though UEFA has not encouraged speculation about a merger, it opened a Europe-wide consultation last year on multinational leagues and began a trial of a combined Netherlands-Belgium women's league.
UEFA said on Wednesday it "has not received any concrete proposals for a regional or supranational" league from its member federations in Russia or Ukraine.
If the league was approved, it would likely start in the 2014-15 season as UEFA must agree to qualifying routes for the Champions League and Europa League which begin new three-year cycles of commercial deals and organizing rules in 2015.
Currently the ninth-ranked country by performance in UEFA club competitions, Russia can rise above the Netherlands — which has only Ajax remaining — with a strong showing in the Europa League and try to close on seventh-ranked Ukraine.
Zenit, whose 2008 UEFA Cup victory was the last time a Russian club won a European title, has a 2-0 lead travelling to face Liverpool.
The winner could face a trip to Ukraine in the next round, which was already drawn, if Dnipro Dnipropetrovsk can overcome its 2-0 first-leg deficit at home to Swiss champion Basel.
Rubin Kazan will welcome Atletico to freezing temperatures in Moscow, where the 2010 and '12 winner must overcome a 2-0 first-leg defeat with an under-strength squad.
Atletico coach Diego Simeone has rested captain Gabi among seven regulars who have not travelled to Russia. The winner next plays Levante or Olympiakos, with the Spanish team going to Greece with a 3-0 lead.
Last week, Moscow's Luzhniki Stadium also staged Anzhi's 3-1 victory against Hannover. The winner after Thursday's second leg in Germany is at home to Newcastle or Metalist Kharkiv. Metalist, which reached the quarterfinals last season, got a 0-0 draw in England last week.
Ajax can potentially face Chelsea in the last 16 if it holds on to a 2-0 lead in Romania against Steaua Bucharest.
After drawn first-leg matches, Bordeaux and Dynamo Kiev, and Genk and Stuttgart resume at 1-1, and Fenerbahce hosts BATE Borisov after a goalless game in Belarus. Benfica has a 1-0 lead at home to Bayer Leverkusen.