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Goalkeeper Martin Vaniak refuses to accept SK Slavia Praha are in the UEFA Champions League group phase merely to make up the numbers. Playing at this stage of the competition for the first time, few outside the Czech capital would bet on Karel Jarolím's league leaders emerging from a testing Group H which also features 2006 finalists Arsenal FC, double UEFA Cup winners Sevilla FC and former European champions FC Steaua Bucureşti.
Speaking ahead of the opening fixture with Steaua on Wednesday, Vaniak insisted the underdog tag that has been pinned on Slavia does not mean they will be the section's whipping boys. "Everyone's been telling me that we have nothing to lose, but I think we do, because we represent Czech football and I want to deliver a quality performance," said the 36-year-old, whose excellent form this season recently earned him a recall to the national squad. "We want to be able to look our fans in the eyes and know that we gave our all."
Vaniak only arrived at Slavia this summer after leaving domestic rivals FK SIAD Most, but played a starring role in helping last season's 1. Liga runners-up clinch a place among Europe's 32 élite teams. First, he turned aside the decisive penalty in a heart-stopping shoot-out win against MŠK Žilina from neighbouring Slovakia, before his brilliance between the posts helped condemn AFC Ajax to a unexpectedly early exit.
More heroics will be required if Slavia are to create another surprise and claim one of the two berths in the last 16 from the section. However, with trips to southern Spain and north London coming up, Vaniak recognises that a winning start against Steaua is crucial. "This is the key match as it is the beginning of the group phase," he said. "Whoever wins it has a big advantage as they'll have three points on the board."
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