English sides given tough tests
Former European champions AC Milan were among the big names looking with optimism towards possible UEFA Cup glory after landing in a comparatively manageable group following Tuesday's draw. The top three teams from each of the eight groups, along with the third place group finishers from the UEFA Champions League, progress to February's round of 32.
And Milan, Champions League winners twice in the past five years, should feel buoyed after joining Dutch side Heerenveen, Sporting Braga, Portsmouth and VfL Wolfsburg in Group E. Despite Milan's pedigree, Portsmouth chief executive Peter Storrie was delighted with the draw, saying that the club would "enjoy it, and I am sure our fans will pinch themselves thinking that Portsmouth are going to play AC Milan in European competition."
Four English Premier League teams are involved in the competition, including former two-time winners Tottenham Hotspur. Currently propping up the Premier League, Juande Ramos's Spurs will hope to make amends in Europe in a group D containing Spartak Moscow, Udinese, Croatian side Dinamo Zagreb and Dutch outfit Nijmegen.
McClaren returns to Manchester
Manchester City were drawn in Group A and will come face to face with the team of former England and Middlesbrough manager Steve McClaren, Dutch side FC Twente. McClaren, whose side were beaten by Arsenal in a UEFA Champions League qualifier earlier this season, said: "It's a fantastic draw for the fans, for the club and for the players. "It's one of the toughest draws, but we've got a great draw and it's very exciting."
Completing Group B is Paris Saint-Germain, Schalke 04 of Germany and Racing Santander of Spain. PSG's chief scout Alain Roche admitted Group A will be a tough nut to crack, but he said the French side will have a gung-ho approach to the campaign. "It will be hard, but exciting," he said. "We'll get the chance to play some big teams, with different styles. We might as well go for broke, even though the (French) league should remain our priority."
With a 20 May final scheduled for Istanbul, Turkish giants Galatasaray, the 2000 champions, will hope to perform well in a potentially tricky Group B which contains Benfica, Olympiakos, Hertha Berlin and Ukrainian side Metalist Kharkiv. Spanish specialists Sevilla, the winners in 2006 and 2007, will start as favourites against Stuttgart, Sampdoria, Partizan Belgrade and Standard Liege in Group C.
Villa face Ajax test
In Group F Ajax, who won their only UEFA Cup in 1992, face a test of their ambition against SV Hamburg, Slavia Prague, Martin O'Neill's high-flying Aston Villa and Slovakian side MSK Zilina. Another former Spanish winner, 2004 champions Valencia, should have top billing in Group G in which Club Brugge, Rosenborg, FC Copenhagen and Saint Etienne should, on paper, be fighting for the last two qualifying places.
CSKA Moscow, the last Russian side to lift the trophy, in 2005, before reigning champions Zenit St Petersburg, will be hoping their solid league form carries them through against Deportivo La Coruna, 2002 and 1974 winners Feyenoord, French minnows Nancy and Lech Poznan of Poland.
For fans of Nancy, the appearance of Feyenoord will bring back unwelcome memories. The clubs met in the 2006/07 competition and, following violent incidents blamed on the Dutch club's supporters, Nancy were handed the match win after a UEFA probe. Feyenoord were later expelled from the competition. "It's not a great souvenir," said Nancy president Jacques Rousselot. "The Feyenoord supporters caused havoc the last time they came. I hope they've calmed down."
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