Former European champions FK Crvena Zvezda begin their latest bid for continental glory tonight as the remaining 37 UEFA Cup qualifying round first legs are played.
The 1990/91 European Champion Clubs' Cup winners welcome FC Nistru Otaci to Belgrade, and Crvena Zvezda coach Slavoljub Muslin believes his side must play at their peak tonight.
'They know football'
"The Moldovans are not a naïve side," he said. "They play solidly and they know football. They are strong in defence, solid in midfield and dangerous in attack. I have told my players that relaxing is out the question."
Nistru finished third in Moldova last season, but their first two UEFA Cup campaigns - in the last two seasons - have ended in qualifying round defeats by Debreceni VSC and Aberdeen FC.
The other former European Cup winners in action, FC Steaua Bucuresti, visit Belarussians FC Neman Grodno and coach Victor Piturca has a daunting target for his team, runners-up in last season's Romanian first division.
Piturca said: "We want to win the league title, but now that we are playing in the UEFA Cup, it is not worth playing in just one or two rounds. It is time to reach the semi-finals." That would be a competition best for a Romanian side, but Piturca is without injured striker Laurentiu Dinita, while newly signed forward Radu Niculescu is not fit to face tournament debutants Neman.
RC Lens, semi-finalists in 1999/00, take on Georgia's FC Torpedo Kutaisi having not scored a goal in their first two Ligue 1 games and seen key playmaker Antoine Sibierski defect to Manchester City FC last week in a €1m deal.
Lens coach Joël Müller is certainly not underestimating Torpedo, pipped to the Georgian title on the last day of the 2002/03 season after three consecutive championships. "For three years now they have been among the best three teams in their country," he said.
It will be a below-strength FC Zhenis Astana side who make their UEFA Cup debut against Czech side FK Viktoria Žižkov. The Kazakh Cup holders currently lead the way in their domestic league, but three days before leaving for the Czech Republic they lost defender Igor Avdeev to a broken leg. Then leading scorer Aleksandr Shatskih got injured in training and is doubtful.
Viktoria Žižkov will provide strong opposition, having knocked Rangers FC out of the 2002/03 UEFA Cup. They too, though, are without a key player after forward Ludek Straceny suffered the recurrence of a thigh injury on Sunday - playing his first game since February.
Even so, coach Vitezslav Lavicka still wants a clear advantage ahead of the second leg. "We know we must contend not only with unknown opponents but also with a long tiring journey to Kazakhstan," he said. "A cushion will be very important."
Of the night's other ties, the meeting of Manchester City and Welsh neighbours Total Network Solutions FC marks the first official match at the English side's new City of Manchester stadium.
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