After lifting the UEFA Cup in May 2002, Feyenoord finally begin the defence of their crown tonight after spending last season involved in the UEFA Champions League.
As a result, the Dutch club were unable to stop FC Porto's march to UEFA Cup glory in 2002/03. However, they are back this time around and the first leg against FC Kärnten of Austria is the pick of the five remaining first-round fixtures to be played this evening.
It is fitting that the new campaign starts at their De Kuip stadium in Rotterdam, where they beat BV Borussia Dortmund 3-2 in a dramatic final 16 months ago. Things have changed, though, not least with the loss of their star strikers from that night, Jon Dahl Tomasson and Pierre van Hooijdonk, now at AC Milan and Fenerbahçe SK respectively.
Now it is the likes of Danko Lazovic, Dirk Kuijt and Sebastián Pardo leading the line, and the duel with Kärnten offers a chance to regain confidence after a sluggish start to the domestic season. Feyenoord lost 3-1 at home against PSV Eindhoven last weekend and are tenth in the Eredivisie.
De Nooijer out
History is not on their side, though. Feyenoord have never managed to beat Austrian opponents, drawing twice in their four meetings. Feyenoord coach Bert van Marwijk will also have to do without left-sided defender Gérard de Nooijer, who has a strained calf muscle. However, there is good news with the return of the 22-year-old Ebi Smolarek after 18 months out with a knee injury.
Despite Feyenoord's strength, Kärnten's Dutch midfield player Davy Zafarin believes his side can get a good result on their travels. "Feyenoord are not doing so well right now," he said. "If we ever have the chance to beat them, it will be now."
Kärnten are without the suspended Mario Hieblinger and the injured Heimo Vorderegger, while midfield player Peter Kabat has flu. Kärnten coach Hannes Haubitz said: "We'll have to work hard and defend well, but it's important that we try to keep their vulnerable rearguard busy with our fast breaks and that's why I'll field two strikers up front."
German side FC Schalke 04, who won the UEFA Cup in 1997, are also in action tonight, visiting Croatia's NK Kamen Ingrad. The home team are without midfield man Antonio Kovac but coach Nenad Gracan said: "We are playing an important game against a big club. We will play without pressure in these two games, and will do our best to win in the first game in front of our fans."
FC Girondins de Bordeaux, another respected name in European football, welcome Slovakian side FC Artmedia Petržalka. Bordeaux have have Mauricio Pochettino back from injury but coach Elie Baup is preaching caution. "If we want to progress, we need humility and to respect this opponent," he said. "I remember that las season we were nearly eliminated by Debreceni [VSC] although we won 5-1 in the first leg."
In the other two ties tonight, Ukrainian contenders FC Dnipro Dnipropetrovsk face German club Hamburger SV and Wisla Kraków entertain NEC Nijmegen. All 48 second-leg matches will be played on 15/16 October.
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