The first-ever meeting in European competition between Panathinaikos FC and FC Barcelona finds the Greek hosts eyeing a place in the semi-finals of the UEFA Champions League for a second time since it was launched in 1992/93.
The Greek side anticipate a rigorous examination on Wednesday against a Barcelona side who finished top of both their qualifying groups to reach the quarter-final stage and have won four times on their travels during the campaign.
Panathinaikos are facing their third Spanish club of the season and a recall of their earlier results suggests they will need a victory in the Apostolos Nikolaidis stadium because on both previous occasions - against RCD Mallorca and Real Madrid CF -they have lost the away leg. For a confidence boost they can reflect that in the second group stage Barcelona failed to win any of their home fixtures.
Barcelona, who are looking to this competition to save their season having seen their prospects diminish in the Primera División, will be heartened by the return of Rivaldo who has been absent since Matchday Eleven because of an ankle injury. Luís Enrique, scorer of the vital goal against Galatasaray SK two weeks ago, misses out through suspension while Panathinaikos are without Giorgios Karagounis for the same reason, therefore becoming the sixth Panathinaikos player to be suspended this season. Better news comes in the returns of Aggelos Basinas and Sotiris Kirgiakos after serving one-match bans although Kirgiakos suffered a thigh muscle strain at the weekend and is a doubt.
Rivaldo's return will give Barcelona coach Carles Rexach the option of fielding an attacking trio made up of the Brazilian and the Dutch pair of Patrick Kluivert and Marc Overmars. The last time the system was used was on 1 December last year when Barcelona lost 2-0 in Vitoria against Deportivo Alavés.
Panathinaikos have also slipped out of serious contention in their domestic league following two disappointing results. Firstly, they drew 1-1 with arch-rivals Olympiakos Piraeus FC in a game marred by unruly scenes at the end after the visitors were awarded a late penalty. A week later Sergio Markarian's team travelled to Thessalonika and needed goals from Giorgios Karagounis and Michalis Konstantinou to rescue a point after they had fallen 2-0 down against FC PAOK Thessaloniki. That result left Panathinaikos six points behind leaders AEK Athens and five behind Olympiakos with four games remaining.
Unbeaten in six ties
In the Champions League the Greek side are unbeaten in six ties at home this season with four wins and two draws. Coach Sergio Markarian said: "A victory by 1-0 or even a 0-0 draw would be very valid results from our point of view. The important thing is not to concede a goal at home." The victory over Mallorca earlier this season was the first time Panathinaikos had beaten Spanish opposition at home - their other five confrontations all ending in draws - including the 2-2 result against Real Madrid two weeks ago which booked their place in the last eight.
Barcelona have visited Athens on two previous occasions. They overcame AEK home and away in the fourth round of last season's UEFA Cup but the 1994 Champions League final in the Greek capital holds only bitter memories for them as they lost 4-0 to Milan AC.
Since Matchday Twelve the Catalan side's form has been mixed. They came back from a goal down to win 2-1 away to Real Valladolid with goals from Kluivert and Philip Cocu despite the sending off of defender Abelardo. However, a 1-1 home draw against UD Las Palmas last weekend left Rexach's side eight points behind joint-leaders, Real Madrid and Valencia CF, with only six games of the season left to play. Luís Enrique had put Barcelona ahead and once again they were reduced to ten men with Kluivert being shown the red card just before the end.
Rochemback likely to play
Fabio Rochemback, the 19-year-old Brazilian who impressed in Istanbul against Galatasaray, seems certain to form a midfield partnership on Wednesday with Cocu, allowing Xavi to assume creative duties. Italian defender Francesco Coco says that it is important that Barcelona prove their superiority over the Greek side from the start of the first leg. "We must demonstrate on the field that we are favourites for the victory," he said. "We must play relaxed, knowing that [the] second leg is in Camp Nou. Nevertheless, we should go for the win, this is the Barça style."
Everything to play for
Coco added that the match will be similar to the one against Galatasaray and that a draw could turn out to be a good result. "The European champions will be the best team from now to the end," he said. "And Barcelona have the same chance as the other seven squads."
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