Middlesbrough FC have received a timely boost as they bid to turn around their UEFA Cup semi-final against FC Steaua Bucuresti with the news that influential striker Mark Viduka is likely to return in front of a capacity crowd at the Riverside stadium on Thursday night.
The English side have lost their last two games, going down 1-0 in Romania last week and bowing out of the FA Cup at the semi-final stage to West Ham United FC on Sunday after losing by an identical scoreline at Villa Park. Viduka sat out both matches with a thigh problem, but the powerful Australian should recover for what manager Steve McClaren describes as his team's most important fixture yet. "It's a season-defining match, our biggest game of the season," he said. "I'm looking forward to it and so are the players. We're gutted after Sunday, we still can't believe we lost as we dominated the match. Our name wasn't on the FA Cup; hopefully it is on this trophy.
"Our play revolves a lot around Viduka, and it's no coincidence that we've lost the last two games and failed to score," added McClaren, who will replace one Australian goalkeeper with another as Brad Jones steps in for first-choice Mark Schwarzer, who broke a cheekbone at the weekend. "Mark will be missed but Brad has always stepped up and performed very well and he'll do a good job. The players are hurt, angry and frustrated because they know they played well on Sunday and didn't get their reward and they're determined to make sure that doesn't happen again."
Gareth Southgate (ankle) and Chris Riggott (suspension) will be reunited in central defence having missed the first leg, and McClaren believes the pair will lift his side against opponents who are unbeaten in six UEFA Cup away matches and have conceded only four goals in 13 games in the competition. "We'll try to make it a high tempo, quite aggressive, play good football and get the first goal," McClaren said. "Steaua are a very organised team with no great stars but they're well oiled and don't concede many so we've got to keep a clean sheet. On Sunday we lost to one defining moment; we have to make sure that any defining moments go our way on Thursday."
Steaua must do without midfielders Banel Nicolita and Sorin Paraschiv after both were cautioned in the first leg, although their loss could be offset by the surprise return from injury of forward Victoras Iacob. The 25-year-old has not played since damaging his shoulder against FC National 2000 Bucuresti on 19 March, but with five UEFA Cup goals already, his availability would be a welcome fillip, although coach Cosmin Olaroiu may also opt to use Daniel Balan and Florin Lovin.
Steaua are seeking to become the first Romanian side to reach the UEFA Cup final 20 years after their victory in the European Champion Clubs' Cup final against FC Barcelona. The team from Bucharest were runners-up in the latter competition three seasons later, losing 4-0 to AC Milan, and Olaroiu predicts that his players will have to find the net on Thursday, explaining: "We will have to score at least once; playing for a draw would be fatal against a very good team with high-quality players. But it's their last chance to win something this season, so the pressure is bigger for them. We have faced more difficult situations and overcome all of them."
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