By Greg Demetriou
FC Slovan Liberec coach Ladislav Škorpil was in defiant mood a fortnight ago following his side's creditable 1-0 defeat in the UEFA Champions League third qualifying round first-leg against Milan AC in the San Siro.
One man missing
"I am quite satisfied with the result and it is a scoreline we can overcome in the return match," he said after Filippo Inzaghi's solitary strike had delighted the Milan faithful. However, there was one key individual that did not play two weeks ago, and was perhaps out of Škorpil's mind when assessing his chances against a side he already acknowledged as being "a great team".
Brazilian playmaker Rivaldo has made excellent progress for Milan since joining on a free transfer last month from FC Barcelona. He impressed in his first showing for Milan, a 19 August friendly against Juventus FC, and, after just an hour of action, he left coach Carlo Ancelotti excited about what was to come.
Plenty of goals
Rivaldo will be particularly keen to reach the first group stage of a competition in which he has always impressed for Barcelona. The competition's top scorer in 1999/00 with ten goals in 14 games, he followed that up with six in six games in 2000/01. Last season was not as productive, but he still hit a hat-trick in qualifying against TS Wisla Kraków before home and away strikes in the first group stage against Olympique Lyonnais. His last Champions League effort was a last-minute winner at home against Fenerbahçe SK in October 2001.
The man who helped inspire Brazil to FIFA World Cup glory in the summer is now raring to go for his new team and Slovan are in line for his return to competitive action. Ancelotti has pledged he will definitely feature, it is just a case of whether he will start.
"In Liberec he [Rivaldo] will play. I still have to decide if he starts at the beginning, but he is certain to play," Ancelotti told Milan's official website. "We all know it's a very important match - Milan have a squad which must play Champions League football. Milan cannot fail to respect the financial efforts the club undertook to put together such a first-rate team."
Not a soft touch
However, the slightest slip could cost Milan dear tonight. Slovan were impressive performers in last season's UEFA Cup, reaching the quarter-finals before succumbing 4-0 on aggregate to eventual finalists BV Borussia Dortmund. Indeed, the Czech side held Dortmund to a 0-0 scoreline in the home leg, proving that they are anything but a soft touch on their home turf.
Slovan may have lost last season's UEFA Cup hero Jirí Štajner to German club Hannover 96, but they still have plenty of impressive performers. Among these is Jan Nezmar, who hit the crossbar in the San Siro but should get plenty of chances to make amends tonight.
Also central to the home side's prospects at the U Nisy stadium will be international defender Petr Johana. Slovan were particularly strong at the back in the first leg, frustrating the Milan forward line time and time again and Johana, linked with Italian side Reggina Calcio, could provide the foundation for a home victory. Another important individual will be Czech Republic midfield player Miroslav Holenák, but it is team spirit that will be most crucial.
The hosts will also look to capitalise on the fact that Ancelotti will be without three key players. Goalkeeper Christian Abbiati sustained an abdominal muscle injury in the first leg and Brazilian Dida will take his place. Also out are defender Roque Junior, who is in Brazil recovering from a shoulder injury, and star striker Andriy Shevchenko, who has had an operation on his left knee.
Moment of magic
For all of these problems, Milan captain Paolo Maldini believes there will be a distinct improvement on their showing in the first leg. "We know that it is fundamental and we know we are going to play better than in the first-leg match at the San Siro," he said. With both sides talking up their chances, the scene is set for a thrilling encounter and a tense night. A moment of magic may be vital, something Rivaldo is only too capable of.
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