Former Real Betis Balompié coach Lorenzo Serra Ferrer is preparing for a return to a city close to his heart as his AEK Athens FC team are paired with Sevilla FC in the UEFA Champions League third qualifying round.
"The tie will be intensely emotional for me," said the veteran Spanish coach. "I will return to a city I love very dearly." In all, Serra Ferrer spent six seasons at the helm of Sevilla's fierce rivals Betis in the Andalusian capital before moving to Athens in summer 2006, though his joy at the prospect of a return is slightly tainted by the size of the task at hand. "Sevilla are very tough opponents, with an excellent squad," the 54-year-old conceded. "They are a side that have won the last two UEFA Cups and were in contention until the very end in the Spanish league race."
Serra Ferrer knows what it takes to succeed in Spain. Having begun his top-flight career with a decade at hometown club RCD Mallorca, it is his time with Betis that he is most associated. In two spells at the Manuel Ruíz de Lopera he claimed the Copa del Rey and guided them to the UEFA Champions League for the first time; achievements not lost on the Sevilla camp. "It hasn't gone down at all well," said club director Víctor Orta of the draw. "There are three complicating factors. Firstly, Serra Ferrer is their coach and his rivalry with Sevilla will motivate his team. Secondly, in Rivaldo they have a player who, despite his age, is still a star. Finally, the second leg is in Athens."
That match will take place on 28 August but focus will initially be set on the first leg at the Estadio Ramón Sánchez-Pizjuán on Wednesday, and Sevilla may not be satisfied with a repeat of the hard-fought 3-2 victory they enjoyed there against AEK in the 2004/05 UEFA Cup group stage. The Enosis are much changed from then and only Nikolaos Lyberopoulos remains from the starting XI, with the likes of Rivaldo, Rodolfo Arruabarrena and Traianos Dellas arriving in the interim. The latter is not taking Sevilla lightly, saying: "They were one of the teams we were hoping to avoid. If we want to achieve something big, we will have to excel ourselves".
It is a mantra echoed by Serra Ferrer who added that despite Sevilla's budget being "at least ten times bigger than ours we have some options and intend to make the best of them". They will be chilling words for a side who thought they had seen the last of the veteran but as they prepare for their first European Champion Clubs' Cup campaign in half a century, Sevilla president José María del Nido admits they would have taken anybody: "The draw wasn't been particularly favourable, but it doesn't matter. Whoever it was, we will face the round with the enthusiasm of a kid with new shoes. We're back in Europe after 50 years."
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