Fearless Boro ready for Europe's big guns Europe

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The Independent Online

The Middlesbrough manager, Steve McClaren, has warned the Champions' League drop-outs that his players are scared of nobody as the Uefa Cup reaches the knock-out stages.

Boro head into tonight's final Group D game against the Bulgarian side Litex Lovech knowing if they match the result AZ Alkmaar get at home to the already eliminated Grasshopper Zurich, they will land one of the third-placed teams from the group stage in the last 32.

However, he is planning to field several youngsters with qualification already assured and would not be fazed if his side finish second and have to meet one of the clubs which will join the competition in the next round after ending up third in the Champions' League groups.

That could mean a tie against either Bruges, Thun, Udinese, Lille, Schalke 04, Rosenborg, Real Betis or Artmedia Bratislava, who all fared better than McClaren's former club Manchester United, but he insists he and his players would relish the test.

He said: "Talking to the players and looking at our team and our squad and how we are playing in Europe, I do not think we are scared of anybody. Nobody, I'm sure, would like to come up against us whether that's a Champions' League team or not.

"The players don't mind. They fought long and hard to get into Europe and the nights so far have been disappointing because, while the results have been good, the crowds have been poor and they have not really felt like the European nights against Lazio and Ostrava and Sporting Lisbon last season.

"They want that kind of atmosphere. They want that kind of European night. That's what they fought 38 games for to get there, and they want more of them.

"If it's a big team, I don't think the players would mind. I certainly wouldn't." Boro have eased their way through the group stage with wins over Grasshopper Zurich and the Ukrainian side Dnipro at home, although it was the 0-0 draw in Alkmaar against Louis van Gaal's beaten semi-finalists of last year which enhanced their growing European pedigree.

McClaren said: "We qualified last season and in our first campaign in Europe, we played Lazio. I've got quite a few friends in Italy and when we beat Lazio, they phoned me up and said 'Middlesbrough are on the European map' because that was a huge victory against one of their top teams. That result really did put us up there. We are not just a small town in Europe, as the fans often sing.

"We have established again by qualifying that we are a force to be reckoned with with our record so far." The progress the club has made under McClaren since 2001 has been spectacular, with the 2004 Carling Cup win sparking a first-ever sortie into Europe followed by a second by virtue of qualification via the Premiership.

"It would have been pie in the sky, a pipe dream two seasons ago," McClaren said. "You would never have dreamt of it, would you? It wouldn't have been possible. But here we are two seasons later, we have won the Carling Cup and we are in our second campaign in Europe.

"It is a fantastic experience for the players and one of the main attractions for getting players here."

McClaren, who could field the youngsters Matthew Bates, James Morrison, Adam Johnson and Jason Kennedy tomorrow night, could use that carrot in a new attempt to lure Sporting Lisbon's £5m-rated winger Rodolph Douala to the club in January after just missing out during the summer.

However, he has warned Tottenham not to bother making a second bid for the winger Stewart Downing following the Teessiders' rejection of their approach earlier this year.

Gaizka Mendieta (calf), Szilard Nemeth and Stuart Parnaby (both hamstring), Tony McMahon (shoulder), Downing and Ray Parlour (both knee) remain on the casualty list.

Middlesbrough squad: Schwarzer, Jones, Bates, Queudrue, Pogatetz, Southgate, Ehiogu, Riggott, Boateng, Doriva, Morrison, Johnson, Kennedy, Yakubu, Hasselbaink, Viduka, Maccarone.

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