Carles Puyol knows he is potentially 270 minutes away from helping FC Barcelona scratch the painful itch left by their last appearance in a UEFA Champions League final. The Catalan club seemingly possessed the right credentials under Johan Cruyff to add to their 1992 final triumph when they met AC Milan in the 1994 finale in Athens, only to be blown away by a masterclass in attacking football from a Rossoneri team which prevailed 4-0.
That humbling followed final defeats by FC Steaua Bucuresti in 1986 and SL Benfica in 1961, and subsequent attempts to win through to club football's premier fixture have brought only disappointment with semi-final losses to Valencia CF in 2000 and Real Madrid CF in 2002 representing their best showings. "In all honestly, it will be very difficult to reach another final," said Puyol ahead of the semi-final first leg against Milan. "The closer you get to such an important fixture, the further away it seems."
Barça could hardly have been paired with more salubrious opponents in the last four, with Milan being a club without peer over the past two decades in this competition. "It's clear that they have played more games at this level than us and have more experience but we have great faith in ourselves," continued the Spain central defender. "What is essential is that we remain fully concentrated until the last minute as it's essential that we don't lose. Milan are ruthless at exploiting chances so we can't afford to make any mistakes."
Olympique Lyonnais learned that to their cost in the previous round, with the French champions having been two minutes from a semi-final date with Barcelona before Filippo Inzaghi and Andriy Shevchenko struck in characteristically clinical fashion. Puyol believes Inzaghi "will be sorely missed" by Milan as he sits out tonight's match through illness but is looking forward to reacquainting himself with the Ukrainian in a tussle which pits the two capains together, saying "It's always difficult to mark him."
Puyol, who celebrated his 28th birthday last week, has been at his rugged best in the UEFA Champions League this season, and would have played every minute of his club's campaign were it not for a suspension ruling him out of the first leg of the quarter-final defeat of SL Benfica. Barcelona are also on the cusp of defending their Spanish title, something which underlines how the team "are continuing to grow" under Frank Rijkaard. The skipper added: "We know that you always have to give that little bit extra if you want to win things."
Barcelona's likely starting defence will have an average age of 28 tonight, with Milan's coming in at over 31.5. "They have a lot of experience," said Puyol of a back line charged with thwarting a visiting attack of Ronaldinho, Samuel Eto'o and Ludovic Giuly. "They're fast and strong and remain among the best defenders around." As does Puyol, a player whose standing will rise even further should it be he who raises aloft the European Champion Clubs' Cup in four weeks' time. Barcelona expects.
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