The 2005/06 UEFA Cup gets under way this evening with 50 clubs bidding for a place in the second qualifying round where the likes of Besiktas JK, FK Austria Wien and former European champions FK Crvena Zvezda await.
Among the contenders, 1. FSV Mainz 05, AFC Rapid Bucuresti and Ferencvárosi TC kick off their campaigns knowing they must negotiate 18 matches if they are to compete in the final in Eindhoven in ten months' time. Bundesliga outfit Mainz are one of the biggest names in action, despite failing to claim an automatic UEFA Cup place last season.
Instead they qualified through UEFA's Fair Play ranking, being rewarded with a tie against FC MIKA of Armenia. Coach Jürgen Klopp has admitted he knows little about his opponents but has been able to watch them play ahead of tonight's game in Frankfurt.
Denmark's Esbjerg fB and Norway's Viking FK also qualified via the Fair Play route, and will face FC Flora of Estonia and Portadown FC from Northern Ireland respectively. Another United Kingdom team, League of Wales outfit Carmarthen Town AFC, make the short trip across the Irish Sea to play FAI Cup winners Longford Town FC.
Belarus Cup winners FC MTZ-RIPO Minsk travel to Hungary to take on Ferencváros, while Slovakian club MŠK Žilina – in this competition after three seasons in UEFA Champions League qualifying – make the trek to Azerbaijan for their first leg against FK Baku.
The most unbalanced tie looks like being in Andorra La Vella where UE Sant Julià welcome Romanian team Rapid. Should they succeed as predicted, the Divizia A outfit will join 24 other first-round winners and 37 other sides including city rivals FC Dinamo Bucuresti in the hat for the second qualifying round draw in Nyon on 29 July.
The 31 second qualifying round survivors will advance to the first round proper, where 49 other clubs will lie in wait, including holders PFC CSKA Moskva and the 16 teams eliminated in the third qualifying round of the UEFA Champions League. The first-round winners will participate in the UEFA Cup group stage.
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