The start of the UEFA Champions League season, which concludes in Paris on 17 May 2006, is almost upon us.
Twenty-four teams are preparing for the first qualifying round, chief among them holders Liverpool FC and Kazakhstan's first-ever representatives FC Kairat Almaty - who will kick off tomorrow against FC Artmedia Bratislava, the first game of the season in Europe's premier club competition. Ten of those clubs were involved at this stage last season, with Shelbourne FC from the Republic of Ireland and Slovenian side NK Gorica no doubt hoping to match their feats of 2004 when they progressed to the third qualifying round.
Shelbourne famously drew 0-0 with RC Deportivo La Coruña of Spain in front of 24,000 fans at Lansdowne Road, Dublin before going down 3-0 in Galicia, while Gorica found the going tougher as they lost 3-0 at home and 6-0 away to AS Monaco FC. Both teams are in action on Wednesday, with Shelbourne crossing the border to tackle Glentoran FC and Gorica entertaining KF Tirana of Albania.
All eyes will be on Wrexham that evening as Liverpool, five-times European champions, square off against Welsh title-holders Total Network Solutions FC. It is the first time the holders have entered at the opening stage of the competition since FK Crvena Zvezda defeated Northern Irish challengers Portadown FC 8-0 over two legs in the summer of 1991.
There are six first legs tomorrow and six the following night, with ten of the sides already assured of their match fitness due to their leagues being played over the summer. The draw for the second qualifying round has already been made, with former European Champion Clubs' Cup winners Celtic FC and FC Steaua Bucuresti among the big names lying in wait.