Group E focus: S.S. Lazio look to impress against FK Partizan and two European newcomers.
uefa.com assesses the form of the sides in UEFA Cup Group E ahead of the opening matches on 21 October.
* S.S. LAZIO
Considering the summer upheaval at S.S. Lazio, their start to the season has been more than creditable. Jaap Stam, Giuseppe Favalli, Stefano Fiore, Claudio López and Bernardo Corradi were all sold, with nine players arriving on transfer deadline day. Nonetheless, new coach Domenico Caso, a former Lazio player with no Serie A coaching experience, has lifted the squad, while veteran Paolo Di Canio, back at the club 14 years after leaving for Juventus FC, is proving a passionate inspiration to his younger team-mates.
The Rome side have lost only one of five Serie A games, at home against champions AC Milan, and have taken seven points from three away matches. No surprise then that Ukrainian outfit FC Metalurh Donetsk were ousted 6-0 on aggregate in the UEFA Cup first round. Brazilian winger César is recovering from a thigh problem and should return to action in three weeks. Striker Simone Inzaghi is also sidelined with a muscle injury, and goalkeeper Angelo Peruzzi will miss the start of the group stage after a knee operation.
* VILLARREAL CF
Having begun the season early by claiming the UEFA Intertoto Cup for the second year running, it has since been a difficult campaign for Villarreal.
Villarreal won the Intertoto Cup the hard way, overcoming the likes of FC Spartak Moskva and Hamburger SV before a penalty shoot-out victory against compatriots Club Atlético de Madrid. But they then failed to win any of their first five Primera División fixtures - including a 1-0 defeat by Atlético in late September - before finally beating Real Zaragoza 2-0 last weekend, moving Luis Pellegrini's side up to 12th place.
A lengthy injury list has not helped Villarreal's cause, but having comfortably seen off Hammarby in the UEFA Cup first round, the casualty room is gradually emptying. Playmaker Roger García appears to have shaken off a knee complaint, while Javier Calleja and strikers Sonny Anderson and Xisco are back in training. Although defender Juan Manuel Peña picked up a knee injury against Zaragoza, Pelligrini should be able to count on a full squad.
* MIDDLESBROUGH FC
Having won the first trophy in their history with victory against Bolton Wanderers FC in the English League Cup final, Middlesbrough have begun the season in solid fashion. Bolstered by several high-quality signings, including Jimmy Floyd Hasselbaink, Mark Viduka, Michael Reiziger, Ray Parlour and Boudewijn Zenden, the north-east club have also made a confident start to their debut European campaign, defeating Czech champions FC Baník Ostrava in the UEFA Cup first round.
Manager Steve McClaren has injury troubles, however, with Reiziger the most long-term casualty with a shoulder problem that may sideline the right-back until the new year. In addition, Viduka, Parlour, Hasselbaink and Mendieta have all been forced to miss games, while Ugo Ehiogu, Franck Queudrue and Joseph-Desiré Job have struggled for fitness.
In their absences, McClaren has given first-team opportunities to some of the club's FA Youth Cup-winning side of last season. With Stewart Downing and Stuart Parnaby already established, the likes of Anthony McMahon and Danny Graham have been blooded while another promising youngster, James Morrison, scored a late equaliser in the second leg against Baník.
* FK PARTIZAN
FK Partizan may not be competing in the UEFA Champions League group stage this term, but it has still been a spectacular start to the season for the Belgrade club.
Unbeaten in all competitive games, they top the First Federal League having dropped just two points in eight matches - with a perfect away record - and are in the last 16 of the Serbo-Montenegrin Cup and, of course, the UEFA Cup group stage. FC Otelul Galati were defeated 1-0 on aggregate in the second qualifying round, Srdjan Radonjic's goal coming 29 minutes into the home leg, before a 3-1 comeback win at home to FC Dinamo Bucuresti enabled Partizan to draw 0-0 on their travels and go through.
With no fixture on Matchday 1 - the visit of Egaleo FC is not until 4 November - Partizan are currently focused on the 16 October derby against the side that deposed them as champions last year, FK Crvena Zvezda. Partizan, six points clear, are grateful for the international break prior to that encounter, giving time for injured goalkeeper Ivica Kralj, midfield player Dragan Ciric and captain Saša Ilic to recover. Ilic last month extended his contract until July 2008, having returned in the close season from a loan spell at RC Celta de Vigo.
* EGALEO FC
A second-division team as recently as 2001, Egaleo are enjoying their first season as a UEFA Cup club.
After solid tenth-place finishes in 2001/02 and 2002/3, they were fifth last term under stalwart coach Georgios Hatzaras, who has since left for Aris Thessaloniki FC. Belgian Stéphane Demol took over, and added three players to a stable squad - attacking duo Dimosthenis Manousakis and Thomas Makris, returning after two years on loan at Halkidona FC, and Austrian striker Günter Friesenbichler joining from Xanthi FC.
The rest of the squad, which includes more forward talent in Anastasios Agritis and Nikolaos Nikolopoulos, are reaping the benefits of having played together for many years, and with a well-organised defence remain unbeaten after three Hellenic National League games and a UEFA Cup first-round tie that took them past last season's surprise package, Gençlerbirligi SK, 2-1 on aggregate. Ironically, their first group match on 21 October is against fellow European debutants Middlesbrough FC.