Everton's Tim Cahill and Steven Pienaar see their round of 32 tie against Sporting Clube de Portugal as not just a shot at redemption but also a springboard to success in the UEFA Europa League.
When Everton were humbled 5-0 by group-stage rivals SL Benfica in October, it was the nadir of a disappointing start to the season for David Moyes's team. However, midfielders Cahill and Pienaar have no fears about facing Sporting, Benfica's Lisbon neighbours, when their UEFA Europa League campaign resumes on 16 February.
Cahill, Everton's attacking talisman, told UEFA.com: "I'm just excited. When you draw Sporting, you are in with the best teams in the world. I just wanted to learn as much as I could about their team, their stadium and the attendance they get."
Everton host Sporting in Liverpool on Tuesday, before returning to the Portuguese capital on 25 February, and Cahill believes they have "a great chance" because of "the form we're starting to show". Since Benfica inflicted two Group I defeats on the Goodison Park side, the second by 2-0, Everton have moved into the top half of the Premier League following a run of just one defeat in eleven games.
They have also recovered key players, and according to playmaker Pienaar – one of 12 first-teamers unavailable at the Estádio da Luz – they have wised up too. "Benfica have a really good team who can easily play in the Champions League," the 27-year-old South African international told UEFA.com, "but I think we learned how to go about it against a Latin team. It helps us that we got one of the teams that play in their league."
Another potential advantage – "we play the first game at home, so we can get into them, make it uncomfortable, and then when we get a chance in Portugal do the same" – provides a contrast with Everton's previous run in the knockout rounds, ended by last-16 opponents ACF Fiorentina on penalties in 2007/08.
Although that attempt to overturn a 2-0 deficit incurred in Florence was in vain, Australian international Cahill is grateful for the experience. "Europe is different," said the 30-year-old. "Because we haven't been in too many European competitions, it's something the fans live for – taking the club to the next level, not only on the pitch but off it.
"Them travelling and having special away days, it's a reward for them, and they respond by supporting their team and being the 12th man. I tell you, you can't hear anything, and when that ball goes in the net it's an explosion of fireworks. It shakes through you."
With Everton enjoying a fourth European adventure in five seasons, Pienaar, recruited from BV Borussia Dortmund in 2007, reckons they should aim high. "When the manager came to sign me, he said the club have qualified for the Europa League, you have experience, you have played almost 30 Champions League games so you can help. It's totally different than the Premiership.
"The pace of the game is really slow, it's more of a dogfight – about who has the hardest punch, who is smarter. It is important for me to be part of a team that has a lot of hunger, desire to win trophies, and of course to be part of the history of Everton. I think we have got a good chance if we go through."
Cahill, whom Moyes introduced to the English top flight from Millwall FC in 2004, has come to symbolise this Everton side. Like Pienaar he is destined for this summer's FIFA World Cup, yet his focus remains on the silverware that has eluded the Blues since 1995.
"I'm very blessed to play for such a great football club, and I always say you have to run through brick walls, regardless of knocks and injuries. We have that right mental attitude. Drawing against Arsenal recently, beating Man City, that isn't a fluke – that's hard work and showing our mettle. Hopefully we can just grow stronger."
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