By Graham Hunter
The outcome of Tuesday's UEFA Champions League tie between Internazionale FC and FC Barcelona at the Camp Nou will go a long way to deciding which side finishes top of Group A. And the difference between the sides could well come down to who wins the battle between two talismanic figures, Barça's Spanish international Carlos Puyol and Inter's Azzurri battering ram, Christian Vieri.
Puyol, the immovable object, voted Spain's best player at the 2002 FIFA World Cup and, by a landslide, Europe's best right-back in the uefa.com users' Team of the Year for 2002, against Vieri, the irresistible force, who is in the form of his life having scored 19 goals in 16 Serie A games this season and notched his hundredth in Serie A last weekend.
The game has taken on an added significance for Vieri since the appointment of Radomir Antic as coach of the ailing Catalan club. Antic knows Vieri like few other coaches. He was the man in charge when Bobo plundered 24 goals in as many games for Club Atlético de Madrid during the 1997/98 season. But his relationship with Vieri was strained and the striker was accused of being more dedicated to the bars and clubs of Madrid than to the Atlético cause.
For the Inter coach, Héctor Cúper, past conflict between the pair will simply spur his striker on. "It's good for him, indeed any player, to have an extra stimulus before a big game," Cúper said. "We don't have to be bad towards Raddy Antic but if that gives Christian an extra incentive then it's all the better for Inter."
With the injured Hernán Crespo, the Champions League's leading scorer with nine goals from eight matches, unlikely to return before April, Cúper needs Vieri to produce in Europe as he has been doing in Italy, and is confident he will rise to the challenge. "
The injury to Hernán Crespo has already put more pressure on Vieri in Europe and he has the personality to cope with such demands," Cúper said. "From the negative of Crespo's injury comes the positive side of what happens to Vieri when more is asked of him. He's capable of assuming responsibility for the goals in Serie A and in the Champions League if he has to."
'One of the best'
Vieri is yet to score in the Champions League this season, but with seven of Inter's past ten goals in Serie A, Antic has enough to concern himself on the pitch without reliving the past. "He is one of the best strikers in Italy and perhaps Europe, so we know what we are up against," he said.
If anyone can stop Vieri, it is Puyol, whose commitment and fierce determination have shone as he has fought tenaciously to halt Barça's slide down the Primera División and to preserve their winning run in the Champions League. Vieri will prove the greatest threat to that run on Tuesday as Barça go in search of record ninth straight win, and Puyol is no doubt of the challenge he is up against. "We will have to be so focused on our job. We mustn't become obsessed with the idea of breaking the record because that could weaken us," he said.
Puyol added: "
Vieri is, without doubt, a true danger. You have to watch his movement every minute of the game because he just shoots when he sees the goal and doesn't usually miss if the chance is clear."
Puyol's frustration has been evident this season as Barcelona have conceded goal after inexplicable goal. But should he play his part in keeping Bobo off the scoresheet, that might, for one night at least, be forgotten. It would certainly bring a smile to Antic's face.
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