Britain's qualifiers avoid big guns in Champions' League

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The Independent Football

Rio Ferdinand's quest for the first winners' medal of his professional career will begin in Eastern Europe after Manchester United were yesterday paired with either Hungarian or Croatian opposition in the Champions' League's third and final qualifying round.

With the first leg preceding the start of the Premiership the £30m defender will make his competitive debut in either Zalaegerszeg, a small town near Hungary's western borders, or in Zagreb, the Croatian capital.

The latter venue is more probable with Zagreb, variously known as Dinamo, NK or Croatia, expected to defeat Zalahus Zalaegerszeg in the second qualifying round.

Having been held at Old Trafford by Zagreb two years ago, before winning away, United will not underestimate the Croatian champions, especially with up to £20m riding on qualifying. However, the bookmakers, who immediately made them 11-2 second favourites behind holders Real Madrid, are not alone in expecting them to join Arsenal and Liverpool in the group stages.

Newcastle United's return to European competition will either be in Norway, against Lillestrom, or Bosnia, against Zeljeznicar Sarajevo.

"I know Lillestrom are a good team, but I don't know much about Zeljeznicar," said the Newcastle manager Bobby Robson. "However, it doesn't matter which of the teams we play. We will play with confidence and passion in order to progress into the group stages of the Champions' League."

Celtic embark on their campaign at home to either MSK Zilina, of Slovakia, or the Swiss champions FC Basle, coached by the former Tottenham manager Christian Gross.

"My own preference is usually to play the first leg away from home," said the Celtic manager Martin O'Neill, "but we'll get on with it and, after our performance against Ajax in Amsterdam last year at this stage of the competition, I don't think we should fear anyone."

Celtic will be without Alan Thompson who will be out for eight weeks after a scan confirmed he had suffered ankle ligament damage in Wednesday's 3-1 friendly defeat by Ajax at Parkhead.

All three clubs were relatively happy with their draws, pleased to have avoided the likes of Sporting Lisbon, Boavista, Dynamo Kiev and Fenerbache.

Their reaction was summed up by the Newcastle chairman Freddy Shepherd who said: "It could have been worse, we're quite happy. If it's Bosnia, it's Bosnia but we're used to that part of the world. Neither team will faze us. The most important thing is that it is terrific to be involved in this competition."

Barcelona, Milan and Bayern Munich were similarly blessed, though the German side's potential tie with Partizan Belgrade could be tricky.

Internazionale were less fortunate being paired with Sporting Lisbon. Inter were knocked out by Sweden's Helsingborg in qualifying two seasons ago and Giacinto Facchetti, the former player and now vice-president, said: "It will be a very difficult game but when we were last in the Champions' League we drew a weaker team and went out of the competition so perhaps it's better."

The second qualifying rounds, which will determine the opponents for Manchester United, Newcastle United and Celtic, will be played on Wednesday and Wednesday week.

The British trio will then enter the competition on 13 and 14 August with the second legs on 27 and 28 August. The first group stage opens on 17 September.

Champions' League Draw

Third qualifying round

Sporting Lisbon (Por) v Internazionale (It)

Milan (It) v Slovan Liberec (Cz Rep)

Rosenborg Trondheim (Nor) v Brondby (Den) or Dinamo Tirana (Alb)

Shakhtar Donetsk (Ukr) v Club Brugge (Bel) or Dinamo Bucharest (Rom)

NK Maribor (Sloven) or Apoel Nicosia (Cyp) v AEK Athens (Gr)

Barcelona (Sp) v FK Vardar (Mac) or Legia Warszaw (Pol)

Skonto Riga (Lat) or Levski Sofia (Bul) v Dynamo Kiev (Ukr) or FC Pyunik (Arm)

Lillestrom (Nor) or Zeljeznicar (Bos) v Newcastle United (Eng)

Hammarby (Swe) or Partizan Belgrade (Yug) v Bayern Munich (Ger)

Genk (Bel) v Sparta Prague (Cz Rep) or Torpedo Kutaisi (Geo)

Maccabi Haifa (Isr) or Belshina Bobruisk (Bos) v Sturm Graz (Aut)

Celtic (Sco) v MSK Zilina (Slovak) or FC Basle (Swit)

Feyenoord (Neth) v Fernerbahce (Tur)

Zalaegerszeg (Hun) or NK Zagreb (Cro) v Manchester United (Eng)

Boavista (Por) or Hibernians (Malta) v Auxerre (Fr)

Lokomotiv Moscow (Rus) v Graz AK (Aut) or Sheriff Tiraspol (Mol)

First leg matches to be played 13-14 Aug; second legs to be played 27-28 Aug