SPL Prepare For Europa League Action

3 top SPL teams head into Europe League action tonight with first leg ties at home and away.

BATTLE OF BRITAIN

Hearts vs. Tottenham Key Battles

MARIUS ZALIUKAS v PETER CROUCH

Hearts captain and central defender Zaliukas is the team talisman, but has a tendency to wander out of position and will have to be on his guard against Crouch, who worked well in tandem with Rafael van der Vaart up front last season.

ANDREW DRIVER v GARETH BALE

Driver is a tricky winner who played for England under-21s but is on the verge of full Scotland honours - and might have had them already had injury not hampered his last two seasons. He will aim to keep the rampaging Bale on the back foot at Tynecastle after the Welshman made a full recovery from injury.

JOHN SUTTON v MICHAEL DAWSON

Sutton, a former Spurs trainee, scored twice in Hearts' win over Aberdeen and is a physical threat and the focal point of the Edinburgh side's attack. Spurs skipper Dawson will require all of his experience to tackle Chris Sutton's younger brother.

Celtic vs. Sion

Neil Lennon would gladly accept a 2-0 win in tonight's Europa League play-off first leg against Sion at Parkhead and take his chances at defending it better than his side did in the same competition last season.

The Celtic boss was handed a tough European lesson in his first full season in charge when his Hoops side - still under construction - were dumped out of the Champions League and Europa League at the qualifying stages by Braga and Utrecht respectively.

The second exit was all the more painful given that the Parkhead men had taken a two-goal lead to Holland only to lose 4-0 in a second-leg collapse.

Asked if he would be happy to take the same scoreline to Switzerland next week and set out to shut up shop, he said, "I tried to play defensively in Utrecht last year and look where that got me?

If you give me a two-goal lead tomorrow night I would be delighted with that and we could take things from there.

But it is all hypothetical really.

I want us to play well. We need to get a foothold in the tie and obviously make sure that we maximise the home advantage.''

The Irishman admitted the Utrecht defeat needs expunging from his memory and has reminded his players there can be no slip-ups this season.

"It rankles with me, yes,'' he said.

"Obviously there is an opportunity to rectify that.

We will make the players aware that European football is very important to the club.

It is one of the reasons why the players come here, not just to challenge for domestic honours but to play in Europe.

But Sion are a very good side and it is going to be difficult over the two games.

The form we have shown this season augurs well but we were in the same sort of form last season before the Utrecht game and we came up short.

We don't want that to happen again.''

Kelvin Wilson, who will play in his first European tie, knows the importance of making up for last season.

The former Nottingham Forest defender said, "After last year, everybody wants to do well and we are all aware of what is on this game.

The gaffer has drilled it home that there can't be a repeat of last year but we are under pressure to win every game.

This is my first European tie at Celtic Park and I am looking forward to it.''

Rangers vs. NK Maribor

Rangers manager Ally McCoist has promised his side will be taking the task of booking their place in the group stages of the Europa League seriously after crashing out of the Champions League.

The Scottish champions had hoped to be plying their trade among the continent's elite again this season but failed to overcome Swedish side Malmo in qualifying.

Rangers now have a second chance in the shape of the Europa League - if they can progress past Maribor - and McCoist says they will not be treating the competition as a consolation prize.

He said, "It's really important. After the disappointment of the Champions League, this is the next best thing for us.

It's the same for the opposition as well - they are in the same boat as ourselves.

The Europa League gives us an opportunity to continue playing European football for the next few months of the season.

It's something we actively want in terms of our players and our staff and, indeed, the fans.

In an ideal world it would be the Champions League we would be playing in but it's not so we have to go for the next best thing and we will be giving all our efforts to the Europa League.''

Rangers may be regarded as favourites to overcome the Slovenians ahead of tonight's play-off first leg in Maribor but, after rivals Celtic exited at the hands of FC Utrecht last year, McCoist needs no reminders about just how tough a task his side faces.

He said, "Although I read that one or two of the experts have got us down as favourites, as we have found to our cost not all favourites win.

There are some tricky ties in any competition in Europe at the moment and we have one over the next 10 days.

We expect a very difficult game because we have seen enough of Maribor.

We know it's going to be a very, very difficult game. They have some technically gifted players, good players, and they will know all about us.

They will have watched us and their coach is an intelligent coach and has obviously done his homework on ourselves.

They will be good on the ball and comfortable on the ball and that's something we will have to combat.''

Meanwhile, Maribor coach Darko Milanic insists previous experience of dumping Scottish teams out of the Europa League has given them confidence of overcoming Rangers.

The Slovenians sent Hibs crashing out of the tournament last year with a comprehensive 6-2 aggregate victory over the Edinburgh side.

Milanic admits his side face a far trickier prospect when they host Rangers but says Maribor are optimistic about their chances.

He said, "Experience from last year's duels with Hibernian will come in handy.

Hibs didn't come to Maribor with a defensive orientation and we expect that Rangers will also try to do the same.

It will be a tougher match but we believe in our chances.''

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