Ernesto Valverde is under no illusions that overcoming Werder Bremen in the UEFA Cup semi-finals will be a tall order but the RCD Espanyol coach is urging his players to try and make history.
Having played for Espanyol in their only previous appearance in the UEFA Cup final, Valverde is all too aware of the significance of this tie. On that occasion, 19 years ago, the Barcelona side won the first leg 3-0 against another German team, Bayer 04 Leverkusen, only to lose the return by the same scoreline and then endure the pain of a penalty shoot-out defeat. Now, though, he is determined to make amends. "It is a historic match," he said. "We desperately want to win it and write our names in the history of the club. We know all too well what a great opportunity this is and we're going to try to seize it."
Espanyol were almost guilty of throwing away another three-goal lead in their quarter-final against SL Benfica. Strikes by Raúl Tamudo, Albert Riera and Walter Pandiani within the opening hour of the first leg appeared to have made a place in the last four a certainty, before the Portuguese visitors replied with two quick goals. However, Espanyol then held out for a goalless draw at the Estádio da Luz and now face opponents whom Valverde considers to be of a similar calibre.
"Werder Bremen are at the same level as Benfica but semi-final matches are always open and we are very confident we can go through," said the coach, who is without suspended defenders Pablo Zabaleta and Francisco Chica and forward Luis García. Although García - who has scored six UEFA Cup goals this term - will be sorely missed, Valverde can at least welcome back Tamudo, who was absent from the return in Lisbon. The Periquitos' inspirational captain struck a last-minute penalty on Sunday to salvage a 2-2 draw against Real Betis Balompié and, like the tournament's leading marksman Pandiani, has played a major role in this season's European adventure.
Valverde pointed out that Bremen also have key players sidelined – something he believes should even out the contest. "Pierre Wome, Ivan Klasnić and Per Mertesacker are big players. So is Tim Borowski," he said. Germany midfielder Borowski has suffered the recurrence of a long-term knee problem and is likely to be replaced by Daniel Jensen. The visitors have made light of injuries throughout the campaign and, unlike an Espanyol team positioned tenth in Spain, they are flying high in the Bundesliga. Jensen scored in the 3-1 victory against TSV Alemannia Aachen last Friday which left them second in the table.
Although his charges crushed free-scoring AZ Alkmaar 4-1 in their quarter-final second leg, Bremen coach Thomas Schaaf refuses to accept the favourites' tag. "Espanyol are at home and they are in the UEFA Cup semi-finals because they deserve it. They beat Benfica over two legs because they were better than them. The whole side is dangerous, they can move from defence to attack very quickly and they're top scorers in the tournament. In fact, we are both attacking sides, which should make it an interesting match."
Espanyol: Gorka Iraizoz; Jesús María Lacruz, Marc Torrejón, Daniel Jarque, David García; Francisco Rufete, Iván de la Peña, Moisés Hurtado, Albert Riera; Raúl Tamudo, Walter Pandiani.
Bremen: Tim Wiese; Clemens Fritz, Petri Pasanen, Naldo, Patrick Owomoyela; Torsten Frings, Frank Baumann, Daniel Jensen; Diego; Miroslav Klose, Aaron Hunt.
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