Everton braced for 'tough' Benfica tie
Moyes' men will face Portuguese giants in Europe while Fulham meet Roma
Saturday 29 August 2009
Everton will face the real "Tractor Boys" as well as Benfica, a club steeped in European football history, in the group stage of the new-look Europa League. David Moyes' side take on the Portuguese club as well as AEK Athens and BATE Borisov from Belarus in Group I.
BATE stands for the "Borisov Works of Automobile and Tractor Electric Equipment" and showed their mettle in last season's Champions League, drawing home and away with Juventus. Fulham, the other Premier League representatives in the competition – the rebranded Uefa Cup – will play Roma, Basle and CSKA Sofia.
Everton club secretary David Harrison said: "Benfica is a tie everyone will be looking forward to but it will be a tough night both home and away. Belarus will have plenty of its own difficulties to cope with, and AEK Athens are a big club too."
Harrison said the new format was a big improvement on the old Uefa Cup where each group contained five clubs, with each playing two sides at home and two different ones away. He added: "The finances this year are increased and in the old format there was a lot of luck involved. This evens things up a bit now."
Benfica have a strong European pedigree having won the European Cup in 1961 and 1962 and reached the final on seven occasions. They finished third in the Portuguese league last season behind Porto and Sporting Lisbon.
Celtic dropped out of the Champions League in the qualifying round at the hands of Arsenal and now have their eyes on becoming the Europa League's first winners.
Ronnie Hawthorn, Celtic's head of operations said: "It's obviously nice to win any competition but it would be particularly historic to become the first winners of the Europa League and that is our goal. Each of these games have their own challenges and we will prepare carefully."
Hamburg will be a tough prospect – they finished fifth in the Bundesliga last season under former Tottenham manager Martin Jol, and are second in the German league. Rapid Vienna meanwhile underlined their potential by beating Aston Villa on away goals to reach the group phase.
Fulham manager Roy Hodgson admitted it was a tough group but said he would not be losing any sleep over it. He said: "We are seeing this as an adventure. We are aware that for a team like Fulham to even reach this stage is a fantastic achievement. We will do our best and put on a good performance. I will have sleepless nights if we are bottom of the Premier League and that is why it has to be the priority."
Hodgson also played down the possible threat to fans – Rome has become a notorious destination for English fans. He added: "I can't imagine that at this stage of the competition a team like Fulham or Basle or Sofia going to engender the type of hatred that will get their fans sharpening their knives, because that's what they do."
Europa League: Key dates
*Group stages: 17 September, 1, 22 October, 5 November, 2/3, 16/17 December 2009
*Round of 32: 18, 25 February, 2010
*Round of 16: 11, 18 March
*Quarter-finals: 1, 8 April
*Semi-finals: 22, 29 April
*Final (Hamburg): 12 May
Hapoel Tel Aviv
* GROUP L
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