By Graham Hunter
FC Barcelona coach Radomir Antic knows there is more at stake against Internazionale FC on Tuesday evening than the outright UEFA Champions League record of eleven consecutive victories.
Antic believes whichever team wins this Group A game will be "almost mathematically certain" of reaching the quarter-finals. His arithmetic looks sound given the fact these two sides already have a maximum six points, compared to group rivals Bayer 04 Leverkusen and Newcastle United FC's none.
The Serbo-Montenegrin took over at Camp Nou after the departure of Louis van Gaal and is relishing a return to Europe's premier competition. "
I haven't been in charge for a Champions League match in six years," said Antic, whose last taste of the tournament came in 1996/97, when he led Club Atlético de Madrid to the quarter-finals.
Winning the 'best medicine'
A victory would give Antic space to concentrate on moving his side clear of the Primera División relegation zone. "The best medicine in football is winning," he said. "A few weeks ago we were in crisis but now we are playing creatively and making chances. Above all our defence is playing as a unit."
However Juan Pablo Sorín, who has added power and cohesion to that defence since his January arrival from S.S. Lazio, is ineligible for this game and therefore misses the chance to put his wits against Inter forward Christian Vieri, who scored his 100th goal in Italian football during the 2-1 weekend reverse at AC Chievo Verona. With Sorin missing, Antic must decide whether to utilise the talents of Patrick Andersson, who won the 2001 Champions League with FC Bayern München but has been out of action for over eight months. Andersson has trained "100 per cent" for the last fortnight but Antic is keeping his cards close to his chest. "It is a decision I will sleep on," he said. Another long-term absentee, Luis Enrique, is also back in the Barcelona squad and is set for a berth on the substitutes' bench.
Cúper's phenomenal record
Inter coach Héctor Cúper has a phenomenal record in this competiton, having reached two finals and overseen 22 victories and 12 draws in a total of 42 matches as coach of Valencia CF and now Inter. However, the 47-year-old Argentinian will have to call on all his experience and cunning to shuffle his injury-ravaged squad.
The most damaging Inter absentee is striker Hernán Crespo, the competition's joint top scorer this season with nine goals, who has a thigh injury which could keep him out of action for another month. "He was the star of the Champions League before Christmas," said Cúper. "
What I hope and pray is that his absence does not have a negative psychological effect on us."
Long injury list
To add to Inter's woes, defender Marco Materazzi is ruled out having damaged his thigh before the defeat at Chievo, while midfield players Matías Almeyda, Emre Belözoglu and Nicola Beati are also missing through injury and Gabriel Batistuta, signed from AS Roma last month, is ineligible. Furthermore, key defender Fabio Cannavaro is, in Cúper's words, "fighting a high temperature". One consolation for the visitors is that they can call on former Barcelona defender Francesco Coco, who returns after almost a month on the sidelines.
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