If there were any doubts about how much Tuesday night's UEFA Champions League play-off second leg against SC Braga means to Francesco Guidolin, they were dispelled by the Udinese Calcio coach on the eve of what he described as "the most important match of my life".
Guidolin has led the Zebrette to the verge of a place among Europe's elite for the second year running. Last season, despite the sales of Alexis Sánchez and Gökhan Inler, he guided his team to an unexpected third-place finish that earned them another crack at the UEFA Champions League after their loss to Arsenal FC in the play-offs 12 months ago. Now, with Udinese looking to build on the foundations of a 1-1 draw in the first leg, Guidolin stressed that this was an opportunity which may not present itself again.
"It will be my last chance and I don't think there is anything to add other than that," said Guidolin, who has seen more key players leave the club this summer, in Kwadwo Asamoah and Mauricio Isla to Juventus and Samir Handanović to FC Internazionale Milano. "It cannot be taken for granted that this team can carry on doing so well as, to do that, we would have to be magicians and I cannot perform miracles," he added.
Braga's visit to the Stadio Friuli is therefore a historic occasion for all involved with the Serie A outfit. Defender Maurizio Domizzi said: "For me personally, it is the chance of a career." Failing to cross the final hurdle for group-stage entry for a second successive year would be hard to stomach, according to Domizzi. "Last year was like a dream and it would have been fantastic if we'd gone through, but life went on even though we didn't," he went on. "To have this chance two years in a row and not take it would be much more disappointing."
Udinese's sole previous participation in the group stage was in 2005/06 while Braga got there two years ago by virtue of a play-off win over Sevilla FC, an achievement still fresh in the mind of Hugo Viana. "We were not the favourites then, but we played a great game to go through," the midfielder recalled. "We now need to focus on tomorrow and do the same all over again. We are very optimistic, and there is a positive energy within the team."
Braga coach José Peseiro did not fully share Guidolin's sentiments about the importance of the game, although victory would still mean a great deal to the Portuguese side. "It is only a game of football and there are more important things, but that does not mean we don't want to reach the group stage. It is a vitally important match for Braga and qualifying would be an important chapter in the club's history," said Peseiro who was preparing to assess Hélder Barbosa's right foot injury after Braga's final training session. There is a late fitness test planned similarly for Udinese's Giampiero Pinzi, who missed Saturday's 2-1 defeat at ACF Fiorentina with a muscle strain in his left leg.
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