Moyes in fear of Liverpool 'play-off'

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The Independent Football

The draw for the third and final qualifying round takes place at Uefa's Swiss headquarters in Nyon tomorrow when, due to special dispensation given to Liverpool by European football's governing body, the city rivals could be pitted against one another in a derby worth £15m.

Liverpool finished outside the automatic qualifying zone in the Premiership last season only for their stunning success in the Champions' League final, and the FA's refusal to withdraw the fourth qualifying place from Everton, to force Uefa into a strategic rethink.

As part of the deal, Liverpool were seeded at the expense of Slavia Prague, who have launched a second appeal over that decision, but lost the right to avoid facing teams from their own national association. Everton are unseeded and the conspiracy theorists, who believe Uefa will pair the rivals together to ensure only four English teams enter the group stages, are in their element.

Moyes said last night: "I am concerned about the draw, definitely. I've got clear concerns about what might happen.

"Of course, the decision as to who is seeded or not is nothing to do with us. We can't influence who is seeded and who is not, but I do think that it's wrong that two clubs from the same country - the same city, even - could be drawn against each other in European competition at this stage.

"You qualify for the Champions' League in order to play teams from another country, not your local rivals. You don't usually expect to get one from your own country, let alone your own city, but there is only one club which is exposed to the fact that Liverpool have not been granted country protection, and that's Everton. That's a fact."

Moyes delivered a much-needed fillip to the rest of the Premiership when he guided unfancied Everton into the established élite, and his concern is born out of a desire for recognition rather than his problems in adding to his squad this summer.

With their 18-year wait for bragging rights on Merseyside diluted after only 18 days, Evertonians had more reason than most to draw the curtains while Liverpool celebrated their Champions' League victory over Milan in May. Now there is further torment, with the possibility of their first participation in the European Cup for 35 years resting on a 500-yard trip across Stanley Park, all that separates Goodison Park from Anfield.

Everton have not competed among the European élite since 1970-71, having twice being denied a place by the ban on English teams that followed the Heysel Stadium disaster of 1985. Though they face a difficult task in reaching the group stages - one that could transform the club's finances following years of hardship - whoever they draw in Nyon, there is a feeling of "anyone but Liverpool", who they last finished above in the League in 1987.

Even on the opposite side of Stanley Park, where Liverpool's smooth passage towards the group stages continued with a 3-1 defeat of FBK Kaunas in Lithuania on Tuesday, there is little desire for two more loaded Merseyside derbies this early in the season.

"I'm sure it'd be a great occasion if we did draw Everton in the next round but I'm sure if you asked both sides, we'd prefer to avoid each other at this stage," said the Liverpool captain Steven Gerrard.

"It'd be brilliant to see both clubs in the group stages but it'd be sod's law to draw each other on Friday and if it does happen, they'd be two fantastic games to look forward to. As a player, you want big games and they wouldn't come much bigger."

Gerrard arrived back from Lithuania early yesterday as the club's joint-fourth highest goalscorer in Europe, alongside Terry McDermott with 15, and is now only seven behind leader Michael Owen. He said: "That's an area of my game I've tried to improve over the last couple of years and I've started the season really well. I was happy with 13 last year and the idea this year is to improve on that.

"To be honest, Michael Owen's record isn't important - the team is. It is nice to score and to catch people ahead of you in the goals list but most important is that we finish this job off against Kaunas next week."

The long-time Anfield transfer target Gabriel Milito has signed a new extended contract with Real Zaragoza after the Spanish club rejected Liverpool's £7.5m bid for their Argentina centre-half.

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