By Luke Williams
Runaway Portuguese league leaders FC Porto must succeed where many others have failed and win in the forbidding surroundings of Panathinaikos FC's Apostolos Nikolaidis stadium on Thursday night if they are to reach the semi-finals of the UEFA Cup.
The Alpha Ethniki pacesetters got exactly the result they wanted in last week's first leg in Portugal when Polish international Emmanuel Olisadebe's goal carved out a crucial 1-0 advantage. However, coach Sergio Markarian is keen to keep his players' feet on the ground ahead of the return.
'Nothing is over'
"Nothing is over," he said. "It's a good thing we won in Porto, but to get through we must be at our best on Thursday night. It will be much more difficult than the night in Porto. We must be careful not to give an inch to our opponents and look for one goal at least."
Arsenal FC, FC Barcelona, RCD Mallorca, Fenerbahçe SK and RSC Anderlecht have been among the European heavyweights to fall at the Apostolos Nikolaidis in recent years, while Real Madrid CF were happy to escape with a draw. Panathinaikos's European record at the ground since their return there in 2001 is a daunting ten wins and two draws from 12 games.
In itself such a statistic will not worry Porto, who have been in scintillating form this season losing just one of 25 league matches and cruising into the quarter-finals of this competition without breaking sweat. Indeed, club president Jorge Nuno Pinto da Costa insisted: "Porto can win anywhere, in any kind of weather. If we can win at Sporting [Clube de Portugal] and [SL] Benfica then of course we can win in Athens."
Of more concern to Porto, yet to win on Greek soil, is the absence of first-choice central defender Pedro Emanuel with a muscle strain which ruled him out of last weekend's 2-0 win against UD Leiria. Coach José Mourinho has brought Carlos Secretário into his squad as a possible replacement for Emanuel. Nuno Valente has been ruled out and left-sided midfield player César Peixoto dropped.
Panathinaikos also have injury worries, with defensive midfield player Angelos Basinas, who had to be substituted during the side's 3-0 victory against Egaleo FC on Sunday with a thigh problem, ruled out of action for two weeks.
Konstantinidis stands by
The team captain, so instrumental in Portugal last Thursday when he shackled Porto playmaker Deco, will be much missed, as Markarian confirmed. "When I saw Basinas down on the ground [on Sunday], I immediately thought of Deco," he said. Pantelis Konstantinidis, Erik Lincar and Giannis Goumas are all possible deputies, while the rest of the Greek lineup is likely to be unchanged, with Olisadebe and Nikos Lyberopoulos once again linking up front.
'Not the messiah'
Neither side has reached the UEFA Cup semi-finals before so there is much at stake. Nevertheless, with hopes so high among both sets of fans, the two coaches are trying to play down expectations. "I am a football coach, not the messiah," said Mourinho. "In the UEFA Cup no Portuguese side has done better than us." Meanwhile, Markarian added: "If we make a mistake in the UEFA Cup, history will forgive us. If we make a mistake in the championship, it won't."
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