LONDON: The reality of life outside the money-spinning Champions League will hit home for a number of Europe’s elite clubs this week when the UEFA Cup takes centre stage with 48 first round, first leg ties.
Former European champions Barcelona and Liverpool begin the road to next year’s final in Gothenburg with trips to unfamiliar surroundings in Eastern Europe.
Barcelona, who have made an unbeaten start to the Spanish league season under coach Frank Rijkaard, open in Slovakia against Puchov, while Gerard Houllier’s Liverpool face Slovenia’s Olimpija Ljubljana.
Barcelona’s unique record of never having failed to qualify for Europe was threatened last season when they exited the quarter-finals of the Champions League.
But a strong surge under then coach Radomir Antic took them from 12th in the league to sixth and a UEFA Cup place.
The Catalans could be without Philip Cocu against Puchov after the Dutch international was substituted late in the 1-1 draw with Osasuna on Saturday with a recurrence of a left knee problem.
Rafael Marquez should deputise if he is unfit.
Valencia, beaten Champions League finalists in 2000 and 2001, also find themselves in the UEFA Cup this season.
Rafael Benitez’s side, who crushed Atletico Madrid 3-0 on Saturday to maintain their unbeaten start, take on AIK in Stockholm today.
The 16 teams who lost in the third qualifying round of the Champions League enter the competition, including another former European champion, Borussia Dortmund.
Dortmund, who face Austria Vienna, were humbled in the Champions League qualifiers by Club Bruges after a penalty shoot-out and their absence from Europe’s premier club competition this season still haunts coach Matthias Sammer.
“I was certainly irritated not to be a part of it. But quite simply it isn’t just the best teams that play in the Champions League, but those that have qualified for it,” Sammer said in a recent interview on the club’s website.
“It isn’t nice to have to watch from the outside, but the simple fact of the matter is that we failed to qualify.”
Sammer has a long injury list to contend with – defender Christoph Metzelder, midfielder Torsten Frings and striker Marcio Amoroso are sidelined – and their preparations for the trip to the Austrian capital will not have been helped by a 1-0 reverse at VfB Stuttgart in the Bundesliga on Saturday.
Vienna, who won the league and Cup double last season, are coached by German Juergen Loew and will be desperate to inflict more problems on Dortmund.
AS Roma, who top the fledgling Serie A standings on goal difference after drawing 2-2 away at Juventus at the weekend, will be confident of securing a healthy first leg lead at home to Vardar Skopje.
The Italians, beaten UEFA Cup finalists in 1991, must be wary of underestimating their Macedonian rivals, who toppled CSKA Moscow in the second round of Champions League qualifying and provided a tough test for Sparta Prague before bowing out at the next stage.
The 1999 winners Parma, who like Roma have seven points from their first three Serie A matches after an impressive 3-2 win at Lazio on Sunday, travel to Ukraine to face Metalurg Donetsk.
UEFA’s seeding system avoided any major clashes but the draw still provided some interesting match-ups, none more so than the Anglo-Turkish clash between Blackburn Rovers, coached by former Galatasaray boss Graeme Souness, and Genclerbirligi.
Tensions have run high between English and Turkish supporters since two Leeds United fans were killed in Istanbul in 2000.
England play Turkey in a decisive Euro 2004 qualifier in Istanbul next month and the English FA have urged fans not to travel for safety reasons.
But Blackburn expect to have around 500 supporters travel to Ankara-based Genclerbirligi today and say they have not been advised of any special security measures.
Two other former UEFA Cup winners feature in this year’s competition, with 1997 champions Schalke, who qualified via the Intertoto Cup, away to Croatia’s Kamen Ingrad in the first leg, while 2002 winners Feyenoord host Austria’s Karnten. – Reuters