Friday, August 1, 2008

Liverpool Draws Standard Liège, Arsenal Draws FC Twente in Champions League Third Qualifying Round

Just as its junior brother, the UEFA Cup, conducted a qualifying round draw this morning, the Champions League did as well with its Third Qualifying Round. We won't know the full slate of matchups until August 6, when the Second Qualifying Round finishes up, but the opponents for Liverpool and Arsenal have already been determined. While the two Premiership heavyweights should get through to the Group Stage, it's not going to be easy.

The road to another deep run in Europe's top club competition for Liverpool starts in Belgium, where they'll meet the defending Jupiler League champions, Standard Liège. We saw earlier that American defender Danny Califf and his club, FC Midtjylland, will be playing Manchester City in the next couple weeks, and Standard Liège has another American defender on their roster. Oguchi Onyewu, whose tenure at Newcastle in 2007 was uninspiring to say the least, is now back at Standard Liège, where he's appeared in 135 games since 2004 and been named to the Belgian First Division's Best XI twice and been Foreign Player of the Year once.

Standard Liège's captain is Steven Defour, a 20-year-old future star whose playmaking skills have earned him a starting role in the center of Belgium's midfield. He is probably his club's best player, but his teammate Milan Jovanović has scored 36 goals in 73 league games and is the domestic league's reigning Player of the Year. Alongside Defour in the midfield is Axel Witsel, the reigning Young Player of the Year in Belgium at the age of 19, who scored in his first senior international appearance for Belgium on March 26. You'll also find three Brazilians on Standard Liège's roster, including both starting full-backs and the vice-captain, who can play as a striker or on a wing.

Rafa Benitez has added some pieces to his team in an effort to seriously contend for the Premiership title this season. He'll be without Ryan Babel, Javier Mascherano, and Lucas for this tie as they are all taking part in the upcoming Olympics, but there is more than enough depth in the squad to adequately replace them for a short-term period. Benitez is well-known for tinkering with his lineup anyway, so it's no guarantee that those three would've played in both legs even if they were available.

Arsenal's opponent is also from a Benelux country; FC Twente finished second in the Dutch Eredivisie last year and is now managed by a familiar face to English soccer fans, Steve McLaren. The former Middlesbrough manager and England head coach had been rumored to take over at Twente since early May but was only formally hired on June 20. After the disgrace at Wembley against Croatia, confirming England's non-participation in Euro 2008, McLaren was fired. You can bet he has something to prove to the English media and to the country's fans, but his squad simply isn't good enough to beat Arsenal over two legs.

McLaren has a young Serbian center back, Slobodan Rajković, on loan from Chelsea, and Nikolay Mihaylov on loan from Liverpool. The former will likely start in this tie and have a large role for Twente this year, the latter sits behind 37-year-old club stalwart Sander Boschker on the goalkeeping depth chart but could compete for some playing time. Australian international Luke Wilkshire plays as a center midfielder for Twente, and former Everton youngster Bjarni Viðarsson will factor into the mix in that area as well.

Arsenal should overpower McLaren's team in this tie but because young players typically don't play their best on the road, you could see the Gunners struggle in the first leg. I have no doubt they'll win back at the Emirates, so it's just a matter of what the scoreline reads after the first game.

The following is the complete draw for this round. First legs will be played August 12 and 13, with second legs 14 days later on the 26th and 27th. As always, home teams are listed first, and the score in parentheses is the aggregate heading into the second leg of the Second Qualifying Round:

Anorthosis Famagusta/Rapid Wien (3-0) vs. Olympiacos
Vitória Guimarães vs. IFK Göteborg/Basel (1-1)
Shakhtar Donetsk vs. Domžale/Dinamo Zagreb (0-3)
Schalke 04 vs. Atlético Madrid
Aalborg BK/Modriča (5-0) vs. Rangers/FBK Kaunas (0-0)
Barcelona vs. Beitar Jerusalem/Wisła Kraków (2-1)
Levski Sofia vs. Anderlecht/BATE (1-2)
Standard Liège vs. Liverpool
Inter Baku/Partizan (1-1) vs. Fenerbahçe/MTK Hungária (2-0)
FC Twente vs. Arsenal
Spartak Moscow vs. Drogheda United/Dynamo Kyiv (1-2)
Juventus vs. Tampere United/Artmedia Petržalka (1-3)
SK Brann/Ventspils (1-0) vs. Marseille
Fiorentina vs. Slavia Prague
Galatasaray vs. Steaua Bucureşti
Panathinaikos/Dinamo Tbilisi (3-0) vs. Sheriff Tiraspol/Sparta Prague (0-1)

Winners in this round move on to the Group Stage, in which 16 teams have already booked places through their final league positions last season, including champions Manchester United, Lyon, Inter Milan, Real Madrid, Bayern Munich, PSV Eindhoven, FC Porto, Zenit St. Petersburg, Celtic, and CFR Cluj. The draw for the Group Stage will take place on August 28, and once again, you can find full coverage and increased analysis here. Once the draw is made, I'll post my predictions to advance to the knockout stages.

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