By Graham Hunter in Villarreal
Villarreal CF coach Francisco García believes his team are favourites to progress to the UEFA Cup semi-finals by knocking out Celtic FC.
The Spanish club play host to last season's beaten finalists at El Madrigal on Wednesday with the score at 1-1 after a first-leg draw in Glasgow. Despite the Scottish team thriving in the role of underdogs, García is confident about his side's ability to get a result.
"If I have to give a favourite to progress then it would be Villarreal," said García. "Obviously Celtic will face us with the same feeling of pride and certainty that they can make it to the semi-final. There is still a big, difficult game ahead which will determine the outcome. All we pray is that things go our way."
The UEFA Intertoto Cup winners have enjoyed mixed fortunes in the build-up to what they consider the biggest game in their 81-year history. García's team lost 2-0 at home to RC Deportivo La Coruña at the weekend, but the coach at least has the consolation of a fully-fit squad at his disposal.
Striker José Mari Romero is back in training after limping out of the Deportivo match, while Antonio Guayre is fit again. "
All I'm asking of my players is that they perform in the same way they have done throughout the tournament," said García.
"The players have little left in their tanks after a tiring season but what they do have I want used in this game. Come kick-off, Celtic will be here to win and there will be nerves in my dressing-room. But my feeling is that we will not miss our chance."
However, Celtic midfield player Neil Lennon was quick to dispute the Villarreal coach's logic. "They may think they are favourites because they have got the away goal," said the 32-year-old former Northern Irish international. "
We know we have to score, but that doesn't frighten us because we are capable of doing that.
"We have been here before. It was the same scoreline at the same stage of the competition last season when we faced Liverpool [FC]. We went to Anfield, didn't panic and got a result. The same thing happened when we played Boavista [FC] in the semi-final. There is no reason why we can't do it here."
Manager Martin O'Neill is likely to have Chris Sutton available although the centre-forward, who recently signed an extended contract along with Alan Thompson and Jackie McNamara, aggravated a groin injury in Sunday's 3-1 Scottish Cup semi-final win against Livingston FC.
Thompson is suspended, meaning Stephen Pearson will probably play on the left of midfield, opening the door for Liam Miller, who will join Manchester United FC in the summer, to start in Spain. "Villarreal can hit you on the break and they're not just about one or two flair players, they all work hard together," the Republic of Ireland midfield player said.
'Flair and hard work'
"I'm sure [Juan] Riquelme and I will bump into each other once or twice on the pitch," Miller continued. "He is class. You just need to look at his previous clubs, such as [FC] Barcelona, to know he is a player to watch. That's what Villarreal are all about: flair on the ball and others who work hard. That's what makes them such a good side."
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