Group stage beckons for giants

The European season starts in earnest this week as English giants Liverpool and Arsenal seek passage into the money-spinning group phase of the UEFA Champions League.

Manchester United and Premier League runners-up Chelsea can rest easy in the knowledge that their place in the lucrative group phase is assured, having finished first and second in England.

In contrast, the Gunners and five-times continental kings Liverpool both had to put the summer buckets and spades away early to prepare for this extra hurdle and will be wary of going the way of Rangers, who crashed out of the qualifiers to Lithuanian minnows FBK Kaunas.

Quite aside from the Scots' embarrassment, that elimination cost the club an estimated £10 million (€14 million). With that kind of money Liverpool, who travel to Belgium's Standard Liege on Wednesday, could close in on securing the services of Aston Villa's England international Gareth Barry.

Spanish midfielder Xabi Alonso has been earmarked as the man to make way if Barry ultimately arrives for some €25 million, yet the former received huge backing from fans in Saturday's friendly win over Lazio.

"I heard the crowd, obviously. We had offers, but they were not enough so we decided he needed to stay with us," said Benitez on the subject of Alonso, while insisting that despite the uncertainty of the Barry affair "Liverpool are ready for the Champions League."

Nonetheless, Benitez is clearly irritated at still not having resolved the final shape of his squad. "It is not positive that we may not have the players we want here before the Champions League game. The situation has been very difficult for us, we have had a lot of players returning to training late after international games in the summer and now we have players at the Olympics.

"I believe we are ready for the Champions League tie, the experienced players are ready. But we know that we have quality from the young players," insisted Benitez, chasing a third run to the final in five seasons.

Cards of fate
Arsenal, meanwhile, runners-up in the competition in 2006 yet trophyless in three seasons, provide the opposition for a man about to cut his teeth in continental European club management for the first time.

Former England manager Steve McClaren will Wednesday welcome the Gunners to the Netherlands to take on his Dutch side FC Twente, the perfect chance to show his mettle after the ignominy of being sacked after failing to lead England to the finals of UEFA EURO 2008. "I think fate deals you certain cards and it has dealt us this draw," said McClaren when the draw was made, adding that "Arsenal will be no strangers to us." Enschede-based Twente are making their Champions League debut after defeating Ajax in a play-off last season.

Barcelona, even with Leo Messi on Olympic duty, should have little problem moving past Poland's Wisla Krakow.

In other games, there will be shades of EURO 2008 as Schalke 04 attempt to glean an element of revenge for Germany's final defeat to Spain by putting out Atletico Madrid.

France's former European champions Marseille, the only French side to lift the trophy, are in action at Norway's SK Brann after making a characteristically Jekyll and Hyde start to the French league campaign, letting slip a 3-1 lead to draw 4-4 at Rennes.

Another former continental king, Italy's Juventus, should emerge safely from their tie with Slovak side Artmedia. Meanwhile, two men will empathise with McClaren as he embarks upon his new adventure as a former Arsenal boss and a former Spurs boss look to make European waves of their own.

Ex-Gunners coach and former Scotland international Bruce Rioch had hoped his Aalborg side would face Rangers but instead now gets a crack at Kaunas. "From a personal point of view it is disappointing, but we have to concentrate on Kaunas and not Rangers," Rioch told Scotland's Daily Record.

And former Spurs coach Christian Gross takes Swiss side Basel to Portugal seeking to get past Vitoria Guimaraes. For Rioch and Gross, a group berth would be a boon. For Benitez and Arsene Wenger, who said on Saturday he doesn't expect any imminent new arrivals, missing out would be catastrophic, as Rangers know only too well.

UEFA Champions League 3rd qualifying round, 1st leg fixtures:

Fiorentina (ITA) v Slavia Prague (CZE)

Anorthosis Famagusta (CYP) v Olympiakos (GRE)
Vitoria Guimaraes (POR) v Basel (SUI)
Shakhtar Donetsk (UKR) v Dinamo Zagreb (CRO)
Schalke 04 (GER) v Atletico Madrid (ESP)
Aalborg (DEN) v FBK Kaunas (LIT)
Barcelona (ESP) v Wisla Krakow (POL)
Levski Sofia (BUL) v BATE Borisov (BLR)
Standard Liege (BEL) v Liverpool (ENG)
Partizan Belgrade (SRB) v Fenerbahce (TUR)
FC Twente (NED) v Arsenal (ENG)
Spartak Moscow (RUS) v Dynamo Kiev (UKR)
Juventus (ITA) v Artmedia Petrzalka (SVK)
SK Brann (NOR) v Marseille (FRA)
Galatasaray (TUR) v Steaua Bucharest (ROM)
Panathinaikos (GRE) v Sparta Prague (CZE)