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Panathinaikos FC are 90 minutes away from ending their three-year exile from the UEFA Champions League group stage. Having won 2-1 away to AC Sparta Praha a fortnight ago, Henk ten Cate's team will seal their place in the competition proper barring any disasters in Tuesday's third qualifying round second leg.
As well as transforming their season, qualification would in the short term provide a confidence boost for a side who begin their Greek Super League campaign at AEK Athens FC on 31 August. Teenage winger Sotiris Ninis is determined not to let the opportunity slip away, insisting there can be no room for complacency at the OACA Spyro Louis Stadium.
"We can't rely on the first-leg result," Ninis said. "Sparta will be determined to spring a surprise so we have to play as if the score is still 0-0. We have to focus and perform better than we did in Prague." Indeed, there is uncertainty in the Panathinaikos ranks because Greece midfielder Giorgos Karagounis is struggling with an ankle injury sustained on international duty last week. With the AEK game looming, Ten Cate is thought to be reluctant to risk Karagounis unnecessarily – if fit, he will play left midfield in a 4-2-3-1 system, otherwise Cleyton and Marcelo Mattos will get the nod in a 4-3-3 formation.
If a home draw with SK Sigma Olomouc four days after the Panathinaikos defeat suggested an irrevocable dent to morale, Sparta showed better form at the weekend. Friday night's 4-1 victory at SK Dynamo Ceské Budéjovice not only lifted Sparta spirits; it took them top of the Czech 1. Liga table after four matches. A further indicator of the visitors' positive mood was the attacking lineup named by coach Vítězslav Lavička: Libor Došek returned up front alongside Marek Kulič and both men scored. Defender Michal Kadlec got the other two goals and may yet leave Sparta after Tuesday's game, with a likely move to Bayer 04 Leverkusen. Panathinaikos's task is to ensure he does not sign off on a high note.
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