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Rivals hitting their stride

Published: Thursday 7 October 2004, 14.46CET
Group F focus: Rangers FC, AJ Auxerre, KS Amica Wronki, AZ Alkmaar and Grazer AK are all impressing.
 
 
Published: Thursday 7 October 2004, 14.46CET

Rivals hitting their stride

Group F focus: Rangers FC, AJ Auxerre, KS Amica Wronki, AZ Alkmaar and Grazer AK are all impressing.

uefa.com assesses the form of the sides in UEFA Cup Group F ahead of the opening matches on 21 October.

* RANGERS FC

Following a difficult start to the season which saw them languishing in fifth place in the Scottish Premier League a few weeks ago, and depart the UEFA Champions League in the third qualifying round against PFC CSKA Moskva, Rangers appear to have turned the corner with four consecutive top-flight wins and a penalty shoot-out victory in the UEFA Cup first round versus CS Marítimo.

Among several new signings, Croatian striker Dado Pršo scored the vital equaliser against Marítimo, but has not yet recaptured his AS Monaco FC form. French centre-back Jean-Alain Boumsong has been a revelation, however, at the heart of the defence and will relish facing former club AJ Auxerre.

Serbo-Montenegrin midfield player Dragan Mladenovic, another summer arrival, should be available for Rangers' first match away to Polish side KS Amica Wronki on 21 October after overcoming a knee injury. Alex Rae will also have recovered from a calf tear by then, but the midfield player is still two games from completing a five-match ban for dangerous play in the first leg against CSKA. Two of the youngsters in Alex McLeish's squad, Hamed Namouchi and Alan Hutton, are also on the way back from knee and ankle problems respectively, but midfield player Gavin Rae will not be fit until the new year.

* AJ AUXERRE

This may be the first UEFA Cup group stage, but there is little else new about Auxerre's appearance at this level.

Coach Guy Roux is in his 42nd season in charge, and in 13 of the last 15 years he has led his team into Europe. And yet again, with the products of Auxerre's famed academy leaving for pastures new - Djibril Cissé, Philippe Mexes, Boumsong and Olivier Kapo being the most recent examples - fresh talents have emerged to take their places.

This time around Roux has signed Czech Republic defender René Bolf and prolific Belgian striker Luigi Pieroni, but again home products provide the base of a side in which forwards Bonaventure Kalou, Kanga Akalé and Benjani Mwaruwari slot into a familiar 4-3-3 lineup. Fourth place in Ligue 1 and a UEFA Cup first-round triumph against Aalborg BK are proof that Roux has unearthed still more star quality.

However, full-backs Jean-Sébastien Jaurès and Johan Radet will both miss the visit of Grazer AK on 21 October through injury, meaning a chance for French Under-18 international Younes Kaboul, who impressed on his league debut against Toulouse FC last week.

* GRAZER AK

After the highs of last season's Austrian double - including a first-ever Bundesliga title - there has been a slight hangover for GAK.

FK Austria Wien and SK Rapid Wien have dominated the early stages of the domestic campaign, leaving GAK in fourth position after losing 1-0 to Austria and taking one point from two games against Rapid. However, a crushing 5-0 home success against PFC Litex Lovech in the first leg of their UEFA Cup first-round tie ensured GAK could even afford defeat in Bulgaria while progressing to the group stage.

Crucial to GAK's chances is the return to form of striker Roland Kollmann. So prolific last season, he began this stuck in a rut before a strike for Austria against Azerbaijan and two more versus Litex transformed his fortunes. FC Wacker Tirol found this out to their cost last weekend when Kollmann scored twice in a 2-1 Bundesliga victory. More of the same will be needed if GAK's tenth UEFA Cup campaign is to continue into the new year.

* KS AMICA WRONKI

Poland's sole remaining European representative after the demise of Wisla Kraków and Legia Warszawa, Amica - who finished well adrift of the Ekstraklasa top two last term - have based their success on youth.

While experienced former internationals Jacek Dembinski and Pawel Kryszalowic lead the line, it is emerging talents like Marcin Kikut, Filip Burkhardt and Karol Gregorek in support that have marked out Amica as a side that improves almost by the week. But then coach Maciej Skorza was previously in charge of the club's hugely successful youth team and assistants Maciej Szczesny and Waldemar Fornalik are also highly-rated.

Although Amica did not start the campaign at a rate of knots, and lost attacking talents Marek Zienczuk and Tomasz Dawidowski to Wisla, they have crept up the league to fourth place and survived a penalty shoot-out at Budapest Honvéd FC and a tight tie with FK Ventspils to make the UEFA Cup group stage.

* AZ ALKMAAR

It has been a happy return to European football for Alkmaar after an absence of almost 22 years.

Having reached the UEFA Cup final in 1980/81, and the UEFA Cup Winners' Cup second round the following two seasons, it was a long wait before their tie this year with PAOK FC, where a 3-2 win in Greece and 2-1 victory at home took Alkmaar into the group stage.

Domestically, things did not begin so well, as Co Adriaanse's side drew at home against SC Heerenveen and lost 5-1 at PSV Eindhoven. But a revival of last season's lineup and midfield player Barry van Galen's comeback have sparked an improvement, and the weekend's goalless draw with AFC Ajax left Alkmaar in fifth - their finishing position in 2003/04.

 
Last updated: 11/10/04 19.00CET

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