Moyes finds magic in Villarreal's challenge

"It feels like Christmas Eve, and I'll be opening my toys in the morning,'' Moyes said of the first leg of the third qualifying round fixture. "I can't wait for it to come. It's something we worked so hard for - and this occasion makes it all worthwhile.''

Moyes, whose team face a "Boxing Day" date with Manchester United when the Premiership opens on Saturday, is aware that Christmas Day can bring acute anticlimax. Villarreal, he argued, represent the hardest opposition Everton could have drawn, with the possible exception of Internazionale. The challenge, however, is to treat the tie as a stepping stone rather than a stumbling block.

The Scot knows all about torrid baptisms in the continent's premier club competition. As a teenager with Celtic, he appeared in the old European Cup against Juventus in Turin, playing right-back against Liam Brady. That night brought defeat, yet he was a winner over two legs against an Ajax team featuring Johan Cruyff and the burgeoning talents of Marco van Basten and Jan Molby.

"Those games taught me that the atmosphere in Europe is completely different,'' said Moyes, whose natural optimism is tempered by the knowledge that just three of his probable starting 11 have any Champions' League pedigree. Of that trio - Phil Neville, Mikael Arteta and Nigel Martyn - only Everton's £5m newcomer from Manchester United is steeped in the tournament. "I am hoping Phil's experience is going to rub off on the rest of the side,'' Moyes admitted.

Any La Liga opposition would have proved an awkward barrier to the lucrative competition proper, let alone one that finished third behind Barcelona and Real Madrid. Moyes watched Villarreal beat Albecete 2-0 last Thursday. He saw a side coached by a Chilean, Manuel Pellegrini, which contains four Argentina internationals, including Juan Riquelme, plus another from Uruguay, Diego Forlan. Villarreal, whose nickname, appropriately for a club visiting the city of the Fab Four, is "The Yellow Submarine'', possess a serial underachiever turned Golden Boot-winning marksman in Forlan.

"But they may be worried about us, too,'' Moyes pointed out. "We may be underdogs, but we'll fight and scratch for everything we can get. We know the Spaniards will try to slow things down, but our supporters missed out on Europe [because of the post-Heysel ban on English clubs], and I'm sure they'll want to play a part.''

Everton will be buoyed by the news Tim Cahill, their goalscoring midfielder, signed a new, five-year contract last night. Villarreal should also steel themselves for a marauding cameo by Duncan Ferguson, the only survivor of Goodison's last European foray, in the Cup-Winners' Cup 10 years ago, though he was injured for the first round and in jail when they fell to Feyenoord in the second.

Everton (4-5-1, probable): Martyn; Hibbert, Yobo, Kroldrup, Pistone; Neville, Davies, Arteta, Cahill, Kilbane; Beattie.

Villarreal (4-3-1-2, probable): Barbosa; Javi Venta, Gonzalo, Alvarez, Arruabarrena; Senna, Tacchinardi, Sorin; Riquelme; Forlan, Figueroa.

Referee: T Hanning (Norway).

The lowdown on... Villarreal

Everton's maiden Champions' League campaign kicks off against a historically obscure club who nevertheless finished third in La Liga last season. David Moyes, Everton's manager, speaks of Villarreal's "slow possession and highly technical game". Coached by a Chilean, Manuel Pellegrini, the team is built around Argentinian playmaker Joan-Roman Riquelme - whom Phil Neville will man-mark on his debut. Riquelme is lethal at set-pieces and inspires attacks for Neville's rejuvenated former United team-mate Diego Forlan to score the goals. Forlan was Spain's top scorer last term.

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