Football: Juninho's stylish return prompts European prediction

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The Independent Online
JUNINHO IS tipping Middlesbrough to challenge for a European place after announcing his return to English football with a stylish display. The 26-year-old Brazilian helped guide his side through a late scare to see off Second Division Chesterfield on Tuesday and secure a place in the Worthington Cup third round, and then predicted a successful Premiership season for the Teessiders.

"We have a better team than the last time I was here," he said. "The last time, we had only 12 or 13 players in the squad, but now there are 16 good players. I think we have the quality to get into the Uefa Cup this year. We have the players and we have the facilities now to do that."

Much has changed at Boro since Juninho packed his bags and headed for Spain after their relegation in the summer of 1997, but one thing that has not altered is the affection in which he is held by the club's supporters.

The news that the Brazilian would start the game, provided that his international clearance arrived in time, sparked a late rush for tickets, with more than 15,000 being sold on the day of the game to boost the crowd to around double what was expected for the second-round tie.

Club officials were left on tenterhooks as the Spanish football association delivered the necessary documentation just eight minutes before the 5.30pm deadline, but the wait was worth it for both player and supporters. Juninho's overall play, although understandably rusty, was inventive enough to rekindle the memories of his first spell in England, and it was his free-kick which led to Steve Vickers' late winner which gave Boro a 2-1 aggregate success.

"I can do better," Juninho said. "My fitness is still to come and I have to keep playing and training to get the fitness as quickly as possible. But I'm still the same player I was and I'm still the same person. My injury has not changed the way I play. If I play against Chelsea, I will be better than I was against Chesterfield."

Sunday's third-round Worthington Cup draw is to undergo a change of format, which will involve dividing the remaining 32 teams into two groups of 16.

The format has been adapted from the World Cup and the Wimbledon tennis championships. As in the Wimbledon draw, clubs will be able to plot their likely opponents through to the final. Teams will not be seeded, but a draw will still be made to decide on home advantage.

The Football League's chief executive, Richard Scudamore, said: "Fans will be able to plot a route not only to Wembley but to Europe as well. We are excited by the format and we think the fans will be too.

"As there is no seeding the 32 teams will come out of the hat at random, so the first two sides out could be Arsenal and Chelsea, for instance."