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48 teams kick off Europa League with Champions League aim

Arsenal's Danny Welbeck is surrounded by teammates as they celebrate him scoring his side's first goal of the game, during the English Premier League soccer match between Arsenal and Bournemouth, at the Emirates Stadium, in London, Saturday Sept. 9, 2017. (John Walton/PA via AP)

LONDON (AP) If it's Thursday, it must be the Europa League.

The Champions League's often unloved and overlooked sibling kicks off its group stage after two nights of headlines and highlights for the premier European club competition.

Still, there is much at stake for the 48 teams in the 12 groups, including former European Cup or Champions League winners AC Milan, Marseille and Red Star Belgrade.

The Europa winner will also collect up to 50 million euros ($60 million) in UEFA bonuses and prize money, plus a Super Cup match against the Champions League title holder next August.

And there is a place in next season's Champions League group stage - a reward that can make the Europa League seem a means to an end.

Here is a look at some of Thursday's games:

After three years away, AC Milan returns to European competition as perhaps the favorite - at least until December when eight teams jump in as a result of placing third in a Champions League group.

The seven-time European champion begins its group at Austria Vienna, and is also drawn with Rijeka and AEK.

Under new Chinese ownership, Milan went on an unprecedented spending spree in the offseason with more than 200 million euros (nearly $250 million) paid for players like defender Leonardo Bonucci (from Juventus); midfielders Ricardo Rodriguez (Wolfsburg), Franck Kessie (Atalanta), Andrea Conti (Atalanta), Hakan Calhanoglu (Bayer Leverkusen) and Lucas Biglia (Lazio); and forwards Andre Silva (FC Porto) and Nikola Kalinic (Fiorentina).

The overhaul produced four straight wins in Europa League qualifying games, and two more to start Serie A. Still, the Rossoneri did not impress in a 4-1 loss at Lazio last weekend.

"We're coming off two months filled with acquisitions and complements and evidently it distracted us a bit," Milan coach Vincenzo Montella said. "We've got to learn to suffer and not always try to play our best."

Arsenal is playing in Europe's second tier for the first time in 18 years after failing to get its usual top-four finish in the English Premier League.

Arsene Wenger is unlikely to take the Europa League as seriously as Liverpool and Manchester United, finalists over the past two years who targeted the bonus prize of a direct Champions League place. United won in May but Liverpool lost the 2016 final.

Wenger has said playing in the Europa League was a "good opportunity to focus completely on the Premier League," and that he would rest key players. This looks like his plan hosting Cologne on Thursday, with Arsenal facing a big match against Chelsea on Sunday.

Everton, with Wayne Rooney, is England's other representative.

Hoffenheim was fighting relegation in February 2016 when it stunned the rest of the league by appointing the Bundesliga's youngest ever coach. Then 29, Julian Nagelsmann responded by steering the side from danger in his first season, and leading it to fourth for its best ever season in his next.

Liverpool prevailed in their Champions League playoff, but Hoffenheim makes its Europa League debut against visiting Sporting Braga on Thursday. Despite injuries, Nagelsmann's side is full of confidence after beating Bayern Munich again at home on Saturday. Nagelsmann has won two and drawn one against the Bavarian powerhouse.

Hoffenheim now has the chance to show the Nagelsmann effect at work in Europe, where its performances are all but certain to bring further attention on Germany's coach of the year.

Lyon hosted a Europa League semifinal at its Stadium of Light last season.

It hopes to play in the final there next May 16.

Lyon's bid to show off its new stadium - which was a 2016 European Championship venue - starts away in a group that offers relatively easy travel compared to some of the eastern European options.

Beginning Thursday at Apollon of Cyprus, Lyon will also face Everton and Atalanta, in the picturesque northern Italian city of Bergamo.

Updated September 13, 2017

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