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MŠK Žilina coach Pavel Hapal warned his players to take nothing for granted as they prepared for the final step towards a place in the UEFA Champions League group stage.
The Slovakian titleholders look poised to become only the third team from their country – after MFK Košice (1997/98) and FC Artmedia Petržalka (2005/06) – to reach the group stage after upsetting AC Sparta Praha 2-0 in the Czech capital last week. Yet Hapal sought to contain the growing sense of anticipation when he stressed: "We've proved nothing yet. It's not good to enjoy a victory before the end."
That said, Hapal hopes a packed Pod Dubňom Stadium – the game was sold out by the end of last week – will help roar the five-time Slovakian champions across the line. "I am so glad that we have a full house," he said. "I hope the fans help us achieve our goal. We would like to give them a similar performance to last week's in Prague. Of course, it's important to be careful in defence but we don't want to just sit back." Žilina won their two earlier home qualifiers with six goals scored and only one conceded and their Czech midfielder, Emil Rilke, said: "If we can repeat our previous home performances, we'll go through."
While Hapal has a full squad to call from – having rested several players during Saturday's 0-0 draw with FK Senica – Sparta crossed the border into Slovakia low on numbers. Although playmaker Libor Sionko and top scorer Bony Wilfried are available after suspension, Marek Matějovský, Erich Brabec and Tomáš Řepka are all banned, Ondřej Kušnír and Libor Hušek remain on the long-term injured list and Martin Zeman has been excluded for disciplinary reasons. So coach Jozef Chovanec must call on several players who are not fully fit, including defender Jiří Kladrubský who has two broken fingers.
Sparta haved made an unhappy start to the season, suffering a third defeat in six domestic outings with Saturday's 1-0 home reverse against FC Viktoria Plzeň – quite a fall for a team that did not lose a single game last term. In a bid to lift morale, Chovanec took his players to Zilina three days ahead of the game. The returning Sionko insisted there was "not a crisis" but did stress the need to take their chances after three games without a goal. "Finishing is our main problem," he said.
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