The introduction of a UEFA Cup group stage has breathed new life into a proud and respected competition. Rather than the old knockout format, the 40 clubs who make it through the first round are drawn into eight groups – providing at least four more matches for each team.
The 2005/06 group stage lineup was decided last night ahead of Tuesday's draw, with the 40 first-round winners earning European football until mid-December at the earliest. A side like AZ Alkmaar – who staged an extraordinary comeback last night to defeat Russian side FC Krylya Sovetov Samara on away goals – know only too well the importance of being involved.
Alkmaar went all the way to the semi-finals in a wonderful 2004/05 campaign. It was their finest hour since reaching the 1981 UEFA Cup final and the way they grasped their opportunity sent a positive message to Europe's other unfashionable but determined teams.
Certainly, the memory of home wins against AJ Auxerre and Rangers FC and away trips to Amica Sport and Grazer AK left a favourable impression on players, staff and fans. Alkmaar general manger Toon Gerbrands is well placed to explain why the club were eager for more of the same.
The 47-year-old was particularly taken with the "unique" formula of playing two opponents at home and two on the road last season. He told uefa.com: "This has been good for the [standard of] football, as the teams do not play with the thought that there is still the second leg to come. Because we prefer to play our attacking game home and away, this system favours us.
"On the other hand, there is the luck factor with the schedule. We played at home against Rangers and Auxerre, and away in Poland and Vienna. If it had been the other way around, we would probably have had a much smaller crowd, so that could be a disadvantage with this system."
Nevertheless, for Gerbrands, the positives far outweigh the negatives, especially "in a sporting sense". He added: "It gives players a lot of experience and we felt the benefit of this in the domestic league." In a wonderful Eredivisie season, Alkmaar pushed PSV Eindhoven and AFC Ajax all the way.
AZ's raised profile helped entice talented players such as former Rangers forward Shota Arveladze, who has so far scored nine goals in six domestic games. "He had been able to see us play several times," said Gerbrands. "He was very positive about our attacking style. Otherwise, he would only have remembered the AZ of four years ago, when he played for Ajax, and that was a wholly different AZ."
The club learnt many lessons from their group stage adventure. Gerbrands tells how Rangers fans immediately snapped up the 800 tickets available to them, while a further 1,500 supporters travelled over to watch the game on television in Amsterdam.
Gerbrands said: "Those fans came to our stadium to buy merchandise. The first Scot entering our shop bought 100 match programmes and we were completely unprepared for that and sold out very quickly. Some Scots bought everything we had, and some things ran out of stock.
"Something special grew for the club and the supporters in the group stage. It was a feeling of belonging which was, of course, helped by the good results. Last year's experience has left us very eager to reach the group stage again." After a thrilling 3-1 win at the Alkmaarderhout last night, Alkmaar can take centre stage once again.
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