Boro shake off underdog tag

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The Independent Online

Although it is the club's first season in Europe, Steve McClaren feels Middlesbrough must no longer be treated as underdogs as they make their return to the competition tonight.

Although it is the club's first season in Europe, Steve McClaren feels Middlesbrough must no longer be treated as underdogs as they make their return to the competition tonight.

Following a winter hiatus, Middlesbrough face the Austrian champions, Grazer AK, at the Arnold Schwarzenegger Stadium in the first leg of the Uefa Cup third round and will start as favourites to reach the next round, where they would face Feyenoord or Sporting Lisbon.

In disposing of Banik Ostrava, Lazio and Partizan Belgrade, Middlesbrough have made their mark on the competition but, for their manager, McClaren, this is where the competition "gets serious".

McClaren said: "When we set out on this adventure, a lot of people were happy for us to play Ostrava, and enjoy the experience. But we got through that and went into the group stage, and to finish top of that was a magnificent achievement.

"A lot of people under-estimated us, but we made a bit of a reputation for ourselves in Europe. Maybe the L-plates were there because Middlesbrough had never been in Europe before but when you reel off the names of the players we have in our team, they have European experience and arrived expecting to play in Europe.

"So there were no L-plates on them. The team was experienced and ready to handle it, but for the club and the supporters it was a new experience. Now I don't think anybody will under-estimate us again."

The challenge presented by Grazer is just what McClaren wants. "Over these two games, and given our growing reputation and with the results we have had, people are looking at us in a different light - and you would say we're favourites," he said.

"But that's not unusual to us. We have been out of the top six in just two weekends since August, so generally because of the teams you are playing you are favourites to win."

McClaren, who has midfielders Ray Parlour and Boudewijn Zenden available again after one-match suspensions, added: "The ambition is to get into Europe season after season because the players like it, the club likes it, the chairman likes it and the supporters like it.

"I don't think there are any thoughts about winning the Cup. The target is just to get through these two games and into the last 16 - and take it from there. But we are over the hill, and you can see what's ahead."

Grazer could be an unknown quantity. They were beaten by Liverpool in a Champions' League qualifier in August and by Rangers in the Uefa Cup group stages, but tonight is their first game back after a two-month mid-winter break.

Middlesbrough (from): Schwarzer, Parnaby, Queudrue, Reiziger, Riggott, Southgate, Cooper, Doriva, Downing, Zenden, Parlour, Morrison, Job, Hasselbaink, Nemeth, McMahon, Bates, Graham, Davies, Nash.

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