London - Coping without Steven Gerrard has been the norm for Liverpool in the Europa League this season, and the captain's absence in Braga on Thursday could give record-signing Andy Carroll the chance to start.
Gerrard has played only twice in Europe this season and the midfielder won't be traveling to Portugal for the first leg of the last-16 match despite playing in Sunday's 3-1 victory over Manchester United.
Not only did that victory lift Liverpool to sixth in the Premier League, but Carroll was able to make his first appearance since joining for 35 million pounds in January.
The former Newcastle striker has been gradually introduced to the Liverpool team after arriving with a thigh injury.
"We've seen steady improvement over that time; he's much stronger in that tendon and in general as well," Liverpool medical chief Dr. Peter Brukner said. "We still need to keep working with him and we want to build his training and playing load up to the level required. He'll play some more minutes against Braga and hopefully he'll be involved more and more with each game."
It won't be an easy introduction to European football for the 22-year-old Carroll, playing a side that is also sixth in their domestic league.
Braga have won five of six European home matches this season, including a victory over Arsenal during the Champions League group stage, although the Portuguese team failed to advance in the more prestigious competition.
It is the Champions League where Liverpool is more accustomed to playing, but the five-time European champions look like missing out on the tournament again next season.
For Manchester City, however, the Europa League is a stepping stone for a likely tilt at the Champions League next season. Roberto Mancini's side is currently third in the Premier League.
"There are a lot of well-known sides in the competition," Mancini said of the Europa League. "All the teams we can play usually play in the Champions League. It is a little Champions League. All the teams are big ones."
The last-16 phase begins for Europe's biggest-spending side in Ukraine at Dynamo Kiev.
"It's a difficult place to go to," said City forward David Silva, who played there two seasons ago for Valencia. "We got a 1-1 draw, so we didn't do too badly. They're a difficult team and at their stadium it's very tough, but we're excited about our chances of going through."
Russia and the Netherlands each have three teams in the last 16, with two head-to-head clashes pitting FC Twente as host against Zenit St. Petersburg and Spartak Moscow heading to Ajax. PSV Eindhoven also hosts Scottish champion Rangers and CSKA Moscow faces Portuguese leader FC Porto.
In Germany, Bayer Leverkusen _ the Bundesliga's second-place club _ plays a Villarreal side that has won only one of its last six games in the Spanish league to fall to fourth.
That hasn't dented the confidence of midfielder Borja Valero.
"Villarreal's best football is better than that of Leverkusen, but that does not mean anything if later we don't demonstrate it on the pitch," he said. "Winning away from home is very tough, and we are not in our best moment. Leverkusen is strong in its league and it is going to be complicated.
"They will try to play a physical game and we will try to hold on for a good result and later try to take advantage of our quality."
Paris Saint-Germain faces Benfica in the eighth match.