English clubs line up for shot at £15m Euro goal

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The Independent Football

For Six Alex Ferguson, the ramifications of entering a critical season at Old Trafford without a role among the European élite are unthinkable, although a first qualifying game in three years provides a painful reminder of last season's fall behind Chelsea and Arsenal.

At Liverpool, the unease of being forced to compete in all three qualifying stages of the competition on which they left an indelible mark last season is mixed, with an acceptance that but for a change of heart and an outbreak of common sense from Uefa, the governing body of European football, they would not have been allowed to defend their title.

Everton know they stand on the brink of a competition that could alleviate years of financial hardship at Goodison Park, but anyone expecting the Premiership's surprise guests at this morning's draw in Nyon, Switzerland, to meekly stand in the corner waiting for a canapé should think again.

Uefa's decision to allow Liverpool back into the Champions' League after finishing fifth in their domestic league last season brokered no argument with their Merseyside rivals. The terms of their re-entry, however, have. David Moyes, the Everton manager, has expressed grave concern at the possibility of being thrown into an all-Merseyside play-off for the lucrative group stages as a consequence of Liverpool losing their "country protection", a tie that would guarantee England has only four teams in the Champions' League proper after all.

Rafael Benitez, the Liverpool manager, refused to be drawn into the controversy of a possible two-legged European tie being played entirely on Merseyside yesterday, preferring to concentrate his thoughts on ensuring the holders guarantee their place by dispensing of FBK Kaunas.

Benitez, whose team take a 3-1 first-leg lead into next Tuesday's return with the Lithuanians, said: "All that I am thinking of is getting through against Kaunas. In football, you must have respect for the opposition. I am aware that the draw for the next round takes place but, first, we have to make sure we prepare properly for Kaunas."

Everton, as the only unseeded English team, face an arduous task unlocking potential earnings of £15m from the group phase whoever they draw. Of the 16 teams in the seeded section, only "country protected" Manchester United are out of reach, leaving Internazionale, Panathinaikos, Sporting Lisbon, Monaco and Ajax among possible visitors to Goodison Park.

"Nobody expects us to get through," the newly appointed Everton captain, David Weir said. "We are not seeded so we are guaranteed a tough draw. We will be out to prove people wrong again but that shouldn't be our motivation for this season. It did give us an edge last season when everyone was writing us off though, I can't deny it, and it was a nice feeling when we did claim fourth."

While the stakes for United and Liverpool are higher as members of G14, the closed shop of European football's top clubs, the potential for trouble from today's draw is not, although Slavia Prague would no doubt have added incentive for a trip to Anfield having lost their seeded place to the defending champions.

Whether representatives from Celtic even tune into the draw at 11am remains uncertain. The cost of throwing away the Scottish title in the final minutes of last season was magnified by the humiliation of a 5-0 defeat by Artmedia Bratislava on Wednesday, leaving Gordon Strachan under siege before his reign with the Bhoys has truly begun, and Rangers as Scotland's only likely representatives in the third qualifying round.

Everton , however, are on the European stage once again, and provide a touch of romance to the competition. Weir said: "At the start of last season, we couldn't have imagined being in the draw. Even now, I don't think we have really thought about what an achievement it has been. We finished fourth with a very small squad above teams of the calibre of Liverpool, so it is a massive achievement.

"Maybe when we watch the draw and the spotlight falls on us, it [will] really start to sink in." As will the depression currently enveloping Celtic Park.