By Kevin Ashby
Despite AC Milan being susceptible to an away goal following a scoreless draw in the away leg of their first knockout round tie against AC Sparta Praha, coach Carlo Ancelotti is confident the momentum from their Serie A charge will carry the holders through to the last eight of the UEFA Champions League.
"On the basis of our performance in the first leg, we will start as favourites," said Ancelotti at the Rossoneri's Milanello training facility. "We're in excellent shape and are enjoying a great spell." Indeed, since that draw in Prague two weeks ago - when the Italian team failed to score from a welter of decent openings - Milan have strengthened their grasp on the Serie A title race, beating S.S. Lazio 1-0 and UC Sampdoria 3-1.
The defeat of the Genoese side on Sunday left Milan five points above AS Roma and six clear of Juventus FC. If Milan are to repeat the feat of last May when they beat Juve on penalties to win the Champions League for the first time since 1994, though, they will have to reproduce their sparkling domestic form on the European stage - starting tonight against Sparta.
Milan have scored 55 goals in 24 Serie A games yet have managed just four in seven Champions League outings this term, and it is now ten matches since they last scored more than once in Europe. Thus, it was no surprise that Ancelotti called on his defence to "concentrate" against Sparta and his forwards "to be patient". Assessing the Czech champions, he said: "
They are quick on the counterattack and dangerous away from home."
Clarence Seedorf is missing with a thigh injury suffered against Sampdoria but Alessandro Nesta returns to the defence. Up front, meanwhile, Filippo Inzaghi, ring-rusty in Prague following a lengthy lay-off, marked his return to full fitness with a weekend goal. Andriy Shevchenko was dropped to the bench for the first time this season for the Sampdoria match and, if selected, will doubtless be eager to vent his frustrations on a Sparta defence which denied him by hook or by crook in the first leg.
Unlike Milan, Sparta are not having it all their own way domestically. Their title defence has hit the buffers in recent weeks following draws against SK Ceské Budéjovice and SK Sigma Olomouc. Although the pressure is building on Jirí Kotrba, he feels there is none on his team - "an obvious advantage" said the coach, adding: "We could be the surprise package in Europe."
Igor Glušcevic misses out with a sprained ankle, leaving his younger brother Vladimir and Tomáš Jun competing to partner Jirí Štajner in attack. But whoever comes in will be expected to play to a set formula. "We cannot afford to leave spaces against Milan," said Kotrba. "That would mean complete failure from our point of view. We will try to repeat the performance from the first leg.
We do not expect anything from this game but we have nothing to lose."
Although they have never beaten Milan in five attempts, Sparta enjoyed a fine result on their last visit to Italy, a 2-2 draw at Lazio in October. One of the scorers that night, Libor Sionko, has since left the club, while the other, Karel Poborský, will have to be at his influential best if Sparta are to advance. "One goal could be enough for us," said the veteran Czech, who has proved himself the man for the big occasion before.
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