The road to the French Cup final reaches its destination this Saturday, as AJ Auxerre and Ligue 2 team CS Sedan-Ardennes descend on the Stade de France eager to get their hands on the trophy and a berth in the UEFA Cup.
'David and Goliath'
Auxerre, winners in 2003, travel to Paris as clear favourites to make their superior status count, but this has been a year of major shocks in the competition and Sedan themselves have already seen off Ligue 1 sides RC Strasbourg and AS Monaco FC in earlier rounds. "The great adventure comes down to a battle between David and Goliath, and that's exactly why the whole country loves the cup," said French Football Federation president Jean-Pierre Escalettes.
Behind the Biblical talk, however, Auxerre have spent the last few days frantically trying to ensure their best players are available to coach Guy Roux. The showpiece event coincides with a whole host of FIFA World Cup qualifiers and, at one point, it looked as seven first-team regulars would miss out. But they received a major boost when top scorer Benjani Mwaruwari was finally released by Zimbabwe, while a private jet has been hired to fly in exciting playmaker Bonaventure Kalou, just 24 hours after he represents Ivory Coast in Libya.
As it stands, only Belgian striker Luigi Pieroni and injured defender René Bolf will be absent, leaving the three-time winners in a position of strength. And after missing out on European football by finishing eighth in Ligue 1, their mission will be to seal their return to the UEFA Cup, having enjoyed a run to the quarter-finals in this year's edition. "There's no point looking for excuses for what happened in the league, we just have to make sure we win this final," said goalkeeper Fabien Cool.
Their opponents Sedan will also be keen to end a disappointing campaign on a high, having missed out on promotion to the top flight by coming in sixth in Ligue 2. "Booking a ticket for the UEFA Cup would be an excellent way of forgetting a failed season," said defender Pierre Njanka, gearing up for his last game in the Ardennes outfit's colours before joining FC Istres. "We have to get to grips with the occasion and not let the emotion get the better of us."
The Wild Boars are no strangers to the Stade de France, though, having narrowly lost the 1999 final there 1-0 to FC Nantes Atlantique. Serge Romano's charges will be hoping to go one better on Saturday, renewing the club with their glory years, when they won the cup in 1956 and 1961. "We deserve to be where we are and we'll try and come out on top," the coach said. "
I have got a feeling we're going to do it."
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