An amazing 37 ties kick off today as the first round of qualifying for the 2008-09 UEFA Cup takes place. The 37 teams who win this round will be joined by 27 more sides – including the eleven Intertoto Cup third round winners – in the second qualifying round draw, taking place in Nyon on August 1st.
I won’t run down all 37 ties but just highlight a few. Norwegian club Viking FK, who made it to the group stages of the UEFA Cup in 2005-06, start their campaign against FK Vetra of Lithuania. I expect Viking to advance from their tie as not only do they have a cool-sounding name but they also have a number of talented footballers on their roster. Among them is striker Martin Fillo, the current Czech Republic U-21 team captain. Fillo had been sought after by Serie A club Palermo and several Bundesliga teams but he opted for the Norwegian club, who broke their transfer record to sign him from FC Viktoria Plze? before the start of this season. He has scored three goals in his first seven games with the club.
A name on the Viking roster that more more fans might recognize is that of goalkeeper Thomas Myhre. Myhre had spells in England with Everton, Sunderland and Charlton, as well as loan spells at Glasgow Rangers, Birmingham, Crystal Palace and Tranmere. He also spent time with F.C. København (F.C. Copenhagen) and Turkish club Besiktas. Myhre has also been capped 56 times by Norway and at 34 should have a few good seasons left in him.
One of Myhre’s former clubs, F.C. København, are in action against Cliftonville FC from Northern Ireland. København are looking to bounce back after a so-so season. They finished third in the Danish league after a run of 5 championships in 7 seasons. They have a strong squad that includes a stacked midfield. Canadian playmaker Atiba Hutchinson, Euro 2008 standout Libor Sionko, former Chelsea and Stuttgart midfielder Jesper Grønkjær and emerging Danish star Rasmus Würtz, who had captained the Denmark U21 side. I would be shocked if København did not advance comfortably.
The final club that I’ll highlight is Hertha BSC Berlin, who finished 10th in the Bundesliga but were awarded a spot in the first qualification round of the UEFA Cup via the Fair Play Ranking. Hertha have a real United Nations composition to their squad with players from 10 different nations. Among them is Jaroslav Drobný, a former Czech Republic U21 star who has yet to make an impact on the senior squad due to the presence of a certain Chelsea goalkeeper by the name of Petr Cech. The backline is further bolstered by German national team member Arne Friedrich, who is one of the quickest defenders in the Bundesliga. Frieidrich is a versatile players and can play either full-back position as well as occasionally filling in as a central defender.
Up front, the emerging star is Valeri Domovchiyski, the former Levski Sofia striker who nearly joined Blackburn Rovers in the January transfer window. Levski and Blackburn could not agree on terms so instead a deal with Hertha was reached for a reported 1.6m Euros. Domovchiyski, a 22-year-old Bulgarian international, had 60 goals in just over 120 apperances with Levski and in his brief debut with Hertha at the end of last season, became the final player to score a goal on Oliver Kahn.
Hertha Berlin face FC Nistru Otaci of Macedonia and should advance comfortably. I’m going to do my best over the coming weeks to focus on some of the lesser talked about clubs involved in the UEFA sponsored competitions as the big clubs often hog much of the spotlight. There are many interesting players and great stories to be found at these other clubs and I’ll do my best to bring them to you here.
The complete list of fixtures is available in a previous post I made when the draw for this round took place.