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Panathinaikos FC's ability to raise their game in European action will again be tested in the UEFA Champions League tonight when the Greek club attempt to use the foundation of last week's single-goal victory over FC Barcelona in Athens to build a route to the semi-finals.
An aggregate success achieved in the Camp Nou would be a handsome achievement for Panathinaikos, who will be now be watched by their coach Sergio Markarian after a stadium ban was lifted, and would effectively signal the end of the Catalan club's pursuit of silverware this season. It is win or bust for Barcelona coach Carles Rexach and his team and they must respond positively to the expectation weighing down on them from a Spanish public whose appetite has been sharpened by the possibility of a Barcelona-Real Madrid CF semi-final.
The dilemma for Rexach is who to leave out with Rivaldo fit enough to be included either from the start or as a substitute, Javier Saviola marking his return with two goals in domestic action last weekend and Luis Enrique free from suspension. All are likely starters while Patrick Kluivert is considered indispensable after the best season of his career in Spain.
Then again, Marc Overmars was rated one of Barcelona's better performers in the first leg. Surely Rexach will not allow himself to field all five forwards? The intriguing possibility was in his thoughts last night but he knows he has to balance the need to score with the reality that a goal for the opposition would severely handicap the hosts' task.
"Of course it is going to be tough," said Rexach. "We will try to score at least once in the first half and if we get two by half-time that would be great. We were too defensive in the first half in Athens and we are not going to do that here."
Rexach, who could vacate his post in the summer, would like nothing better than to prove Markarian wrong after his prediction before the first game that a 1-0 victory would be a "very valid" result. The controversy that was aroused by the penalty decider following Abelardo Fernández's challenge on Joonas Kolkka added irony to Markarian's observation but the Barcelona players say they were as much angered by their failure to score as by the late penalty award.
Assistants in charge
Since then Markarian had been banned from entering any stadium for 40 days while Panathinaikos president Angelos Filippidis was banned from performing club duties for one year and from attending matches for 18 months. The penalties related to incidents that marred the end of their recent derby with Olympiakos Piraeus FC in which the referee was injured. It had originally been thought that assistants Gabriel Molnar and Takis Economopoulos would take charge, with Markarian following the action via the television in his hotel suite. However, after further clarification from the Hellenic Football Federation today, it was decided that Markarian's provisional suspension is no longer in force.
The coach is likely to witness a defensive operation as Barcelona go for the kill and try and improve on home form that saw them draw all three games in the second group stage. However, the Greek team's creative possibilities have been enhanced by the return of Giorgios Karagounis following his absence last week through suspension and even though he has been suffering with influenza he is expected to play. The same illness has also laid low Nikos Liberopoulos and Daniel Saric, so Giorgios Seitaridis and Emmanuel Olisadebe stand by.
Saviola to play?
For Barcelona, Xavi Hernández is likely to assume responsibility for opening the game up. Saviola's presence in the starting eleven is once again exercising the minds of the Catalan media and that drew a wry response from Rexach. "You always ask me whether Saviola will play or whether he won't and you make me think I have been dreaming when I have seen him in the team," he said. "The statistics show that he is our fifth ranked player in terms of minutes played."
Panathinaikos, who already in this campaign have lost twice in Spain, against RCD Mallorca and Madrid, have one theoretical advantage over their opponents as they were spared any weekend activity, the Hellenic National League agreeing to their request for a postponement. At the same time Rexach's team were recording a 2-0 away win over Athletic Club Bilbao, with Saviola taking his league tally since joining Barcelona to 13.
'Not 100 per cent'
Kluivert was suspended and Rivaldo aroused more concern among his fans by leaving the field after 77 minutes with a knock on the same ankle that has left him idle in recent games. "He's not 100 per cent but he can play," said Rexach about the Brazilian he has termed the power and the genius of his team. "It was pointless having him there [on Saturday] after we scored the second goal when he was feeling the injury."
'We want to win'
Markarian said he had no plans to man-mark the likes of Rivaldo and Saviola and denied he would be content with a narrow defeat if it meant qualification. "We have good defenders, we want to win, and I would not be happy to lose the game," he said.
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