Teams gear up for Champions League

Get ready for the strongest Champions League field ever.

updated: February 25, 2007 10:48 IST
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Get ready for the strongest Champions League field ever. If this week's third round qualifying round matches go according to form, then the 32 clubs who go into Thursday's draw in Monte Carlo for the group stage will include 13 former winners with a combined 41 titles in European soccer's most prestigious soccer tournament. If Liverpool and Ajax make it to the group stage, then all the clubs who hold the domestic championship records in England, the Netherlands, Spain, Italy and Germany will all be in the draw with a combined total of 128 league titles. Home advantage Liverpool, the defending and five-time European Cup winner, holds a 3-1 lead over Bulgaria's CSKA Sofia and has home advantage on Tuesday, while four-time winner Ajax faces Denmark's Brondby in Amsterdam on Wednesday with the two teams level at 2-2 from the first leg. Although Liverpool has so far won all five Champions League qualifying games by a combined 14-2, it looks far from impressive in the league. After a 0-0 draw with Middlesbrough, the team edged promoted Sunderland 1-0 on Saturday. "It is too early to be frustrated by a lack of goals and a performance like that," said Liverpool manager Rafa Benitez, who believed his players were tired after playing for their countries the previous Wednesday. "Coming straight after an international week it is only the win that is important. It is hard to find players with fresh legs. For them to play 90 minutes for their country and then come straight into another high tempo game is not easy," he said. Among the 16 teams already waiting in Thursday's draw, which will separate the teams into eight groups of four, are nine-time European champion Real Madrid, Spanish league winner FC Barcelona, Italian titlist Juventus and multiple European winners AC Milan and Bayern Munich. Chelsea, Arsenal in draw Although Chelsea and Arsenal have never won the top European title, they also are in the draw after having finished first and second in the English Premier League last season. Manchester United, winner of eight Premier League titles in 11 seasons under Alex Ferguson, also looks like making it to the last 32, holding a 3-0 advantage over Hungarian champion Debrecen. England's bid to get five teams into the group stage looks unlikely to happen, however, with Everton going to Villarreal trailing 2-1 from the home leg. Villarreal striker Luciano Figueroa, who scored at Goodison Park, is in confident form after having scored another since then in a friendly against Uruguay's Penarol. "The way we played against Everton and the result we got has put us in a good frame of mind and makes us confident about the return leg," Figueroa said. "The key to the match is to play as we always do at home. If we do I'm sure the team won't have too many problems. "Everton has no choice but to go for it and that would give us a really good chance because they'll leave space which we can take advantage of." Inter Milan to meet Shakhtar Donetsk Inter Milan, winner of 13 Serie A titles but none since 1989, holds a 2-0 advantage over Ukrainian champion Shakhtar Donetsk and has home advantage when they meet again on Wednesday. The team is also boosted by an Italian Super Cup victory over Juventus on Sunday, its second trophy in three months after winning the domestic cup at the end of last season. "It's great to win, when you win you want to win more, that's got to be the climate in our locker room," said Argentina midfielder Juan Sebastian Veron, whose extra-time goal led Inter to a 1-0 victory Saturday. "We've begun with the knowledge that it's an important season for us, beyond the new acquisitions," Veron added. "It's important that we've continued with the same coach, we understand his ideas well, the team knows what he wants on the field. Winning at the start of the season is good motivation for the future." (AP)