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Last season SL Benfica and FC København met in the UEFA Champions League group stage – this time around their tie decides who gets to return to the competition proper.
Benfica welcome third qualifying round opponents København to Lisbon for Tuesday's first leg, hoping to reach the group stage for the third successive campaign – having only made it twice before 2005. Although they were held 0-0 in Copenhagen last term, Benfica's subsequent 3-1 home win guaranteed them European football after Christmas. Their hopes of a repeat have been boosted by the news that new striker Óscar Cardozo and stalwart Nuno Gomes are fit after recent injuries.
Coach Fernando Santos said: "The team will be strong when we face København. We are very confident despite the opposition. København have nerves of steel, they are very strong in the air and direct in attack. In terms of preparation, they are a little ahead of us, but we are confident and we will have our fans behind us."
Cardozo should start in preference to Nuno Gomes alongside fellow newcomer Gonzalo Bergessio, having impressed with Paraguay at the Copa América. The front two may not be the only debutants, with Luís Filipe, Freddy Adu, Fábio Coentrão and Hans-Jörg Butt also in the running. However, Butt could be on the bench as Santos sticks with established goalkeeper Quim. "Butt has arrived recently, he is an excellent keeper but Quim is in better shape and he knows the defence better," the coach said.
Unlike Benfica, København have begun their domestic campaign, lying third in the Danish Superliga with ten points from five games. They also have a UEFA Champions League victory under their belts, having needed Marcus Allbäck's extra-time goal in Israel to eliminate Beitar Jerusalem FC. Last season a surprise win at AFC Ajax enabled København to emulate Brøndby IF and Aalborg BK in representing Denmark in the group stage; now they hope for more of the same.
København coach Ståle Solbakken rested Denmark left-back Niclas Jensen in Saturday's impressive 5-2 triumph against Esbjerg fB while making sure that none from Atiba Hutchinson, Jesper Grønkjær and Allbäck played 90 minutes. "One of our goals over the weekend was to save the players who had done a lot of running in Jerusalem, and not to make more use than was necessary of other key players such as Allbäck and Grønkjær," Solbakken said.
Solbakken concedes that Benfica's lack of matches makes them something of an unknown quantity for the visitors. "I do not know a lot about Benfica's current situation, but I still consider them favourites to qualify for the group stage," he said. "However, they may not be much stronger than Beitar Jerusalem were at this moment in time." Solbakken has a full-strength squad, with Czech Republic midfielder Libor Sionko eligible to play, having arrived from Rangers FC too late to face Beitar.
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