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Juventus open bid to return to European big time

SoccerNews in Serie A, UEFA Champions League 12 Aug 2008

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Juventus are looking to take a big step towards regaining their place among Europe's football elite when they entertain Artmedia Bratislava in their Champions League final qualifying round, first leg tie on Wednesday.

The Serie A giants have not played in Europe since drawing 0-0 to Arsenal in Turin in April 2006 to crash out of the tournament 2-0 on aggregate at the quarter-final stage shortly before the explosion of the match-fixing scandal that led to their relegation to the second tier.

After Juve won promotion back to Serie A at the first attempt and finished third in the standings last season to earn a ticket to the Champions League, the Slovak champions are not expected to pose a major threat to their ambitions in the competition they won in 1985 and 1996.

Indeed, coach Claudio Ranieri is hoping to make fast work of them.

“We have to wrap up the question of qualification (to the group stage) at home,” Ranieri said after his side drew 0-0 at European and English champions Manchester United last week.

“The opposition are not too difficult, we knew that.”

Ranieri has some injury headaches, as midfielders Marco Marchionni and Cristiano Zanetti are doubts after missing training on Sunday with muscle strains, while Croatia defender Dario Knezevic, a new signing from relegated Livorno, is battling for fitness too.

Juve are also without Czech midfielder Pavel Nedved, who is suspended after being sent off against Arsenal two years ago, as well as forward Sebastian Giovinco and midfielders Paolo De Ceglie and Claudio Marchisio, all members of the Italian Olympic squad.

But defenders Zdenek Grygera, Jonathan Zebina and Cristian Molinaro and striker Vincenzo Iaquinta are back training after shaking off knocks.

Artmedia scored 10 goals and conceded just three as they knocked out Malta's Valletta and Finland's Tampere United in the first two preliminary rounds.

But the prospect of facing the visitors' prolific attack, led by 25-year-old striker Juraj Halenar, is not keeping Ranieri awake at night.

“Artmedia are a team that score a lot, but we are solid at the back and I'm not worried,” he said.

“At Manchester we again showed we are reliable in defence.”

Apart from a 3-0 thumping from Hamburg at the Emirates Cup in London this month and a 1-0 defeat to Serie B Piacenza, Juventus's form has been good in pre-season friendlies.

They beat Danish side Brondby and Germany's Borussia Dortmund 1-2 and 1-3 respectively last month and claimed a 1-0 victory over Arsenal at the Emirates Cup before the respectable draw in Manchester.

Captain Alessandro Del Piero and David Trezeguet, who have looked sharper than Iaquinta and new Brazilian signing Amauri in recent games, are likely to lead Juve's attack on Wednesday, according to Italian media reports.

The return leg of the Champions League final qualifying round tie takes place in Bratislava on August 27.

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