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"Now my dream is going to come true," said AC Sparta Praha midfielder Josef Hušbauer after seeing his team land UEFA Champions League holders Chelsea FC in the UEFA Europa League round of 32 draw. "I went to one of their games last year and was excited by the atmosphere. I told myself that I wanted to play there once in my career."
Rafael Benítez's Chelsea were one of the clubs many were keen to avoid in the draw, but the 22-year-old Hušbauer is delighted at the outcome, relishing the chance to test himself against the toughest of opponents. "They are an excellent rival with a great stadium, so it will be a fantastic experience," he said. "I hoped we would be drawn against Chelsea."
One player on the other side of the fence equally enthused about the match-up is Petr Čech, knowing he will face the side he turned out for as a 19-year-old. "It is fate," said the Chelsea goalkeeper. "It is our first time in the Europa League and I will play against a Czech team straight away. For us there is only one aim: to win the Europa League. As current holders of the Champions League we are going to be theoretically favourites in all the games. So nothing other than qualification against Sparta can be considered."
SL Benfica join Chelsea in swapping UEFA Champions League aspirations for UEFA Europa League ones, yet have a tough first task against Bayer 04 Leverkusen, whose sporting director Rudi Völler believes the teams are evenly matched. "We will meet at eye level," said the former German international. "Chelsea would have been the toughest draw, but Benfica are not far behind. It is a tough opponent, but if we show the same attitude as we have done in recent weeks, I am sure we have a chance."
Opposite number Rui Costa commented that if the tie is anything like the clubs' 1993/94 European Cup Winners' Cup encounter, it will be a special one. "The last time we went to Leverkusen was a game to remember as we drew 4-4 in one of Benfica's most memorable matches," said the erstwhile midfielder who created three goals that night. "We are aware of Leverkusen's strengths, they are on top form in the Bundesliga, but we have our own strengths as well."
Elsewhere, Leverkusen's Bundesliga rivals VfL Borussia Mönchengladbach have drawn S.S. Lazio, and vice-president Rainer Bonhoff sees the form of the Italian side's Germany striker Miroslav Klose as key, saying: "They have had their ups and downs this season and a lot is in direct relation to the availability of Klose. We have managed to beat other quality teams in the past and playing in Rome in February will be a fantastic occasion for us."
Biancocelesti boss Vladimir Petković is targeting a result in the away leg to take his charges through. "It will be an interesting challenge and I think small details will be decisive," said the coach. "We will try to win the away game and then confirm qualification at home."
"Liverpool is a great draw," waxed FC Zenit St Petersburg's Viktor Fayzulin after drawing the former European champions. "They are a club with a rich history, but Zenit have the strength to beat them and progress." That optimism is shared by FC Rubin Kazan captain Roman Sharonov, despite his club having to negotiate holders Club Atlético de Madrid. "They have Falcao and whenever he touches the ball at the minute, a goal is inevitable," said Sharonov. "It will be very interesting to play against such a striker. I do not want to assess Rubin's chances but I am looking at the tie with optimism."
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