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UEFA Cup Starts Up Next Week

Attention turns back to European club competition next Wednesday as the UEFA Cup Round of 32 gets under way.

For a host of teams, these two-legged ties represent their first competitive football of the year, but that predicament was no hindrance to Zenit St. Petersburg last season when they went all the way to lift their first European trophy. After finishing third in their UEFA Champions League group, Zenit return to defend the title, yet like 12 months ago when they overcame Villarreal at this stage on away goals, they face tough opponents in VfB Stuttgart.

Stuttgart are one of four German contenders, and while Hamburger SV and VfL Wolfsburg topped their groups to set up first-leg trips to NEC Nijmegen and Paris Saint-Germain, Werder Bremen host Italian giants AC Milan after transferring from the UEFA Champions League. This competition is the only continental crown the San Siro club have still to win, and with a star-studded lineup featuring Andrea Pirlo, David Beckham and Clarence Seedorf, they will be looking to set that record straight.

Other standout fixtures include Milan’s Serie A rivals Fiorentina taking on four-time European champions Ajax, and the clash of domestic cup specialists Shakhtar Donetsk and Tottenham Hotspur, in one of five games to be played on the Thursday. Several teams from the same association could meet in the Round of 16; Tottenham are one, but only if they get through their tie and Aston Villa overcome 2004/05 tournament winners CSKA Moscow, who have installed Zico as their coach.

While English sides have faced off twice before in the UEFA Cup, there has never been an all-Ukrainian encounter in continental competition. That could change with Dynamo Kyiv and Metalist Kharkiv due to meet in the next round, although they must first eliminate Valencia and Sampdoria respectively. For the first time in five years, the Danish Superligaen is represented in Europe after the winter break with two teams – Aalborg and København – involved. Elsewhere, Girondins de Bordeaux and Galatasaray come together for the fourth time in three seasons, with the Turkish club targeting a first victory over their French hosts.