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Real Madrid CF's decision to rest most of their leading players for their final game in UEFA Champions League Group C has given Panathinaikos FC a tremendous opportunity to qualify for the quarter-finals. The Greek side need only a draw at the Apostolos Nikolaidis stadium to finish second in the group behind the Spanish club.
However, Robert Jarni, formerly of Madrid and now of Panathinaikos, has warned that the eight youth-team players that Vicente del Bosque has included in his squad could prove more hungry than the first-choice players, but by and large the Greek team will be delighted with the Madrid coach's squad selection.
Of the side that drew 1-1 at the Camp Nou with FC Barcelona last Saturday, only César Sánchez and Santiago Solari have made the trip to the Greek capital. Luis Figo, Fernando Hierro and Aitor Karanka are injured while Pedro Munitis and Iván Helguera are suspended, but there are seven players who have simply been rested, among them Zinedine Zidane, Roberto Carlos and Raúl González. It is a respite that will be much appreciated by the players who face a demanding end to the season.
'We have no pressure'
"I consider that [RC] Deportivo [La Coruña], Valencia [CF] and Real Madrid all have a very difficult schedule with matches every two days, and nobody will be allowed to make mistakes," said Michel Salgado, one of those players who is being rested. "The most important things about this game is that for Real there is nothing at stake, and therefore we have no pressure."
Five out of five
The Madrid full-back refuted suggestions that their group has been much easier than that of their great rivals Barcelona - Madrid have won all five of their second group stage games so far. "I don't think that Barcelona's group has been much more difficult than ours," he said. "We have simply been very concentrated in all our games, that's why in the end it all looked so easy for us. We knew that the first two group games are normally decisive in a group. If you win both of them, then everything normally becomes much easier."
Sergio Markarian's Panathinaikos side, however, will not be as strong as he would like. Suspension deprives them of their anchor man in midfield, Angelis Basinas, and central defender Sotirios Kyrgiakos. Dane Jan Michaelsen is likely to replace Basinas, but they have an additional problem at centre-back as Leonidas Vokolos is struggling to be fit. Otherwise the omens look good for Panathinaikos: Madrid have never won in Greece while the Greek side have won four and drawn one of their five home games in the UEFA Champions League.
However, Jarni could be right about the ambition of this Madrid side. The Spanish giants have made a habit in recent years of giving some of their younger players their debut in the UEFA Champions League and Del Bosque looks poised to introduce four more tonight in César Navas, a defender, the versatile 18-year-old Borja Fernández, Francisco Sousa and Javier Portillo, a striker and the new wonder boy of Spanish junior football.
Eager to impress
Del Bosque plans to unleash the 19-year-old, who with 36 goals is the leading goalscorer this season in Spanish junior football, in the second half as a substitute for Fernando Morientes - and as Jarni suggested, he will no doubt be desperate to impress.
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