Promised land beckons for hopefuls

Six teams who have never reached the group stage will be trying to do exactly that when the first leg ties conclude.

By Trevor Haylett

The third qualifying round of the UEFA Champions League offers a host of clubs the opportunity to reach the promised land of the group stage for the first time. Udinese Calcio, PFC CSKA Sofia, Malmö FF, FC Thun, FC Artmedia Bratislava and SK Slavia Praha are all dreaming of the glittering reward which could move a step nearer with a good performance tonight.

'Toughest test'
Ten ties will complete the first-leg action with CSKA the latest team to try and capture the scalp of Liverpool FC, the reigning champions who have already overcome Total Network Solutions FC and FBK Kaunas in qualifying. Liverpool manager Rafael Benítez is warning his team that this is the toughest test they will face in the competition so far.

'Quick and compact'
"CSKA are a better team than the last two we have played," Benítez said. "They play good football and keep the ball well, they are quick and compact and have some good players. I know that in football if you think you are the best team then maybe you will have problems. We have respect for them."

Fitness worries
The winners of Malmö and Thun will enjoy a first-ever group stage slot. The Swedish team have fitness concerns over three of their players and Olof Persson is suspended. Goalkeeper Mattias Asper has been suffering from a cold while midfielder Hans Mattisson has a slight injury to his thigh. Both should be passed fit which is unlikely to be the case with full back Jon-Inge Höiland who has a foot injury.

Patience preached
Sporting Clube de Portugal coach José Peseiro is preaching patience ahead of their tie with Champions League debutants Udinese. "Our style of play is very exposed and attacking," he said. "We are an offensive side but we have to be very careful and patient to stop dangerous Udinese counterattacks. It would be great if we win this match without conceding any goals but we know that Udinese are a strong away side."

Midfield absentees
Defensive midfielder Luís Loureiro is Sporting's main absentee after breaking facial bones in the friendly against UC Sampdoria. The player has been training with a protective mask but will not be considered. Another midfielder, Carlos Martins, will also be missing due to a thigh injury.

Artmedia threat
FK Partizan will be hoping to avoid the fate of Celtic FC - surprisingly beaten by Artmedia in the previous round - as they look to book their place in the group stage for the second time in three seasons. Coach Vladimir Vermezovic is without defender Nemanja Rnic, who has a broken foot, but midfielder Ivan Tomic returns as does fit-again defender Nisa Saveljic.

'Knife-edge dilemma'
"We will enjoy these two legs" said Vermezovic. "In the second qualifying round we had a problem because we were on a knife-edge, if we lost it was goodbye to European competition. Now, we have something in our hands and we want more. I am optimistic as we are much more experienced than the Slovakian champions."

Slavia's chance
Czech representatives Slavia complete the lineup of would-be group debutants with an away tie against RSC Anderlecht, while previous winners AFC Ajax, FC Internationale Milano and FC Steaua Bucuresti respectively tackle Brøndby IF, FC Shakhtar Donetsk and Rosenborg BK. SK Rapid Wien FC against FC Lokomotiv Moskva completes tonight's games.