Milan, Liverpool and Arsenal eye European glory

August 7, 2006

LONDON, Aug 7 (Reuters) - A tainted AC Milan side, 2005 winners Liverpool and last season's finalists Arsenal will top the bill when the Champions League final qualifying round gets underway this week.

Milan, docked points by an Italian sports tribunal, were only cleared to face Red Star Belgrade in Wednesday's third round by a reluctant UEFA after Italy's match-rigging scandal.

A lack of legal grounds, which European soccer's ruling body will now address, prevented their Emergency Panel from barring entry to the six-times European champions.

But it did not prevent UEFA issuing a highly critical statement, which spoke of the damage the club 'has already caused to European football.'

Still smarting from their 2005 final defeat by Liverpool after leading 3-0, Milan will be led up front by Filippo Inzaghi on the striker's 33rd birthday.

'I'll be really excited,' he told the Gazzetta dello Sport on Monday. 'I've always dreamed of playing at San Siro on August 9, but there aren't usually any competitive games at that date.

'I'm calling on all the supporters whose holidays are over or who aren't far from Milan to come and get behind the team... we have to beat Red Star and with the help of the fans we will.'

As for UEFA's decision to let Milan compete, he added: 'It's fantastic, because the Champions League is still our main priority.'

Liverpool, who beat Milan on penalties last year in Istanbul, have the unlikely backdrop of the Middle East conflict in their first leg game against Anfield against Maccabi Haifa.

UEFA were due to decide later on Monday as to whether Maccabi will play the second leg on Aug. 23 at home or be made to play at a neutral venue due to the security situation in the Jewish state.

Liverpool, who go into the game after a 5-0 friendly defeat by Bundesliga side Mainz on Friday, are expected to deploy their new Welsh forward Craig Bellamy.

Arsenal, beaten by Barcelona in the Paris final in May and now facing Dinamo Zagreb in Croatia on Tuesday, are fortunate to be in the qualifying rounds at all.

Out of the running for most of the season, they only snatched fourth place in the Premier League from Tottenham Hotspur on the final day.

Arsenal will be without captain and main striker Thierry Henry, having only recently returned for pre-season training due to the World Cup, while keeper Jens Lehmann in suspended.

In other matches, Valencia travel to Red Bull Salzburg, Ajax Amsterdam are away to FC Copenhagen, AEK Athens meet Hearts in Edinburgh, Hamburg SV host Osasuna and Benfica travel to Austria Vienna. The lucrative group stage of the competition starts in September.