Europa League: Man City face fellow big spenders

BERNE - Manchester City, a club whose lavish spending has so far failed to produce the anticipated returns, have much in common with opponents Salzburg when they kick off their Europa League campaign on Thursday.

The two big spenders, who meet in Group A, are among 48 teams in action, ranging from former European champions Liverpool, Juventus and Porto on the one hand to Swiss second division outfit Lausanne on the other.

Uruguay's Diego Forlan, voted the top player at the World Cup, will lead the attack as holders Atletico Madrid, who beat Fulham in last season's final, begin the defence of their crown at Aris Salonika in Group B

Like Manchester City, Austrian champions Salzburg have also found that spending vast sums of cash does not necessarily bring success, having yet again missed out on the Champions League.

City spent more than 50 million pounds in the January transfer window alone but still failed to get a top four finish in the Premier League. They spent another 120 million pounds in the close season in an attempt to build a side good enough to qualify for next year's Champions League.

They hope their policies will not take them down the same road as Salzburg, which was bought and rebranded by the Red Bull soft drinks company in 2005 amid protests by the fans.

Since then, Salzburg have won three Austrian titles but, despite spending around 200 million euros - a huge amount by Austrian Bundesliga standards - and signing 64 new players, the Champions League dream has eluded them.

Salzburg have fallen in the final stage of Champions League qualifying four times in the past five seasons and this year, despite making 11 new signings, they were eliminated by Hapoel Tel Aviv.

BLENDING IN

To add to their woes, they have made a poor start to the Austrian season, taking only five points from their first five games.

"We must not forget that we have some young players with a promising future and to blend in young players takes time," said their Dutch coach Huub Stevens after a 0-0 draw at home to LASK Linz at the weekend.

Clubs from 24 countries will be represented in the group stage, although that still leaves more than half of UEFA's member associations without representatives in the competition. Those missing include Scotland, Serbia, Sweden.

The competition is in its third incarnation, having started out as the Fairs Cup in the 1950s.

After gone steadily downhill since the mid-1980s, it experienced a revival last season after its name was changed from the UEFA Cup and a new, simpler format was introduced, replacing the cumbersome groups of five with the more orthodox groups of four.

One club which has not been spending is Lausanne, whose annuall budget is around 4 million Swiss francs ($3.9 million). Having knocked out Lokomotiv Moscow in the final qualifying round, they host CSKA Moscow in Group F.

For the second season in a row, Liverpool and Juventus, usually Champions League contenders, have found themselves setting their sights much lower.

Liverpool, whose coach Roy Hodgson led Fulham to last season's final with a memorable campaign, host Romania's Steaua Bucharest, European champions in 1986, in Group K while Juventus entertain P