Barca Gives Lesser Rivals Their Due

Maybe because he is a green and inexperienced coach, still really a player at heart, but F.C. Barcelona coach Josep Guardiola couldn't help letting the cliches fly on Friday following the UEFA Champions League draw that pitted his team against the winner of the Beitar Jerusalem-Wisla Krakow series.

"We won't make light of any opponent, we have to respect every team," he said as his club prepared for a series of matches in the United States.

"It's true that we are favorites, but these will be our first matches this season, and that's dangerous. If these match-ups were in November, I'd be calm, but not now," he said.

"We will learn about the teams - we'll have a representative at their matches," said the coach, affectionately known as Pep.

Guardiola also referred to his club's 7-0 rout of Hapoel Be'er Sheva from his playing days in the 1990s.

"Yes, I've played in Israel with Barca, and we won easily, but every match and every opponent is a different story," he said.

Barca's players also referred to the upcoming contests at the press conference in Chicago.

"Everyone knows how important this match is - the whole season is riding on it," said defender Rafael Marquez.

"The first game will be extremely important. It doesn't matter who the opponent is, as long as we advance," he said.

None of the veteran Barca players has forgotten the team's performance seven years ago against Wisla, when it fell behind early in the series before staging a comeback to claim victory.

Team captain Carles Puyol praised the progress being made in the Israeli soccer community, naming 17-year-old midfielder Guy Assulin as an example of its success.

Assulin debuted last year with Barca's first team and is currently being developed in its youth program.

The Spanish press made fewer efforts to hide its emotions.

El Mundo Deportivo described it as a "good draw" for the team.

Readers of its Web site ranked Beitar an easier opponent than Wisla by a margin of 63 to 37 percent.

Barcelona is a team that needs no introduction, even to the most casual of sports fans, but it is one with an entirely new look this summer.

Not only is coach Frank Rijkaard gone, so is virtually half the team, including several big-name players.

Ronaldinho and Gianluca Zambrotta are now at AC Milan, Deco is at Chelsea, Giovani Dos Santos is at Tottenham and Edmilson Gomes is at Villarreal, to name a few.

Star striker Samuel Eto'o remains on the fence about his future at the club.

In the meantime, Barca has filed an appeal to the Court of Arbitration for Sport asking it to overrule a FIFA decision that players aged 23 or under must be allowed to play for their country at the Beijing Olympics.

Barcelona wants to keep Argentina's Lionel Messi at home for their match against Beitar or Wisla.

The court ruled yesterday to give FIFA more time to present its case to soccer's highest court, and the sport's governing body will now have until midnight Monday to do so.