Big name clubs add real sheen to UEFA Cup

LONDON, Sep 19 (Reuters) Four former European champions and four former UEFA Cup winners lead the assault on this season's UEFA Cup competition when the first round proper begins this week.

The UEFA Cup might be Europe's second club competition but it is bristling with big clubs, none of whom would spurn the chance of lifting the handsome trophy at the City of Manchester Stadium on May 14.

The competition is so huge that 69 teams have already been eliminated from the two opening qualifying rounds leaving 80 teams in the opening round.

Eight more clubs, who are taking part in the Champions League, will eventually drop down into UEFA Cup at the knockout stage if they fail to advance in the senior competition and finish third in their Champions League group.

Sevilla, winners for the last two years, are competing in the Champions League.

Among the favourites to take over their crown are Bayern Munich, playing in the UEFA Cup for the first time since 1996-97 after failing to qualify for the Champions League last season.

Bayern, who along with Ajax Amsterdam, Red Star Belgrade and Hamburg SV are one of four former European champions taking part, face Belenenses of Portugal, who last won a European tie 19 years ago against Bayer Leverkusen.

Bayern, who have made an unbeaten start to the new German season and are top of the Bundesliga, should advance with something to spare.

Ajax, who like Bayern have won all three of Europe's senior competitions including the UEFA Cup, dropped into the UEFA Cup after being eliminated from the Champions League third qualifying round by Slavia Prague.

They face a tough tie against Dinamo Zagreb, also eliminated in the third qualifying round of the Champions League, by Werder Bremen.

However Ajax have made an unbeaten start in the Netherlands after four matches and will be full of confidence.

Former European champions Red Star Belgrade face Poland's Groclin Grodzisk while Hamburg, who advanced from the Intertoto Cup, play Litex Lovech of Bulgaria.

Tottenham Hotspur, who were knocked out by Sevilla in the quarter-finals last season, have a special relationship with the UEFA Cup, being the first club to win it in 1972. They will be hoping to kick-start their season after just one win in six matches in the Premier League, with a convincing performance against Anorthosis Famagusta of Cyprus.

Galatasaray, the only Turkish club to win a European trophy when they lifted the UEFA Cup in 2000, travel to FC Sion in Switzerland.

Anderlecht, the 1983 winners, play Rapid Vienna while Leverkusen, the 1988 victors, face Leiria of Portugal.

The 40 clubs that survive the opening round will be drawn into eight groups of five teams on Oct. 9 before embarking on a four-match group stage and subsequent knockout rounds for the three top teams in each group.

Reuters BJR RS1016

Story first published: Wednesday, September 19, 2007, 20:06 [IST]
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