RC Celta de Vigo, Málaga CF and Real Betis Balompié will be flying the flag for the Primera División tonight in the UEFA Cup but all three face difficult ties as they seek to become the first Spanish side to win the competition for 16 years.
Not since 1986 when Real Madrid CF, as holders, lifted the famous trophy has a team from Spain been crowned UEFA Cup winners. Indeed, apart from Madrid's two triumphs in the mid-80s, no Spanish club has tasted UEFA Cup success since its inception in 1971/72. In contrast, Italy has had nine winners while England and Germany have each won the competition six times.
The third-round draw has not been kind to the Spanish trio, who will be only too aware that the 2003 final is to be played in Seville. Celta have been given perhaps the toughest draw of the 16 ties, 14 of which see their first legs played tonight, against Scottish champions Celtic FC, while Málaga face FA Premiership club Leeds United AFC and Betis have to tackle former UEFA Champions League hopefuls AJ Auxerre.
Celta have travelled to Scotland for their first-leg encounter knowing that Russian midfield player Alexsandr Mostovoi may have to start on the bench because of an achilles problem while Vágner and Juan Velasco will definitely miss out. Still, Celta will be favourites to progress especially as Celtic have not been involved in Europe after Christmas for 23 years.
But coach Miguel Angel Lotina is aware that the atmosphere in front of 60,000 fans on a chilly Glasgow night will be particularly intimidating. "
For any footballer coming to a place like Celtic Park, it is obviously going to be an experience," he said. "But my players are professional and they will cope with the atmosphere."
Key to Celtic's chances will be the involvement of Bulgaria midfield player Stilian Petrov, who suffered a facial injury at the weekend. "It looks pretty sore, but he feels better and I will give him every opportunity to play," said manager Martin O'Neill, who is definitely without Alan Thompson and pondering whether to play Welsh striker John Hartson and drop Chris Sutton into midfield.
Málaga striker Darío Silva's back problems have ruled him out of the home game with Leeds, who reached the Champions League semi-finals in 2001. Gerardo is also absent, so two youngsters, Koke and Antonio Manuel Sánchez, could play. The match also sees the return to Spain of former FC Barcelona coach Terry Venables, who is under pressure after Leeds's poor start to the domestic season. The English club will look to in-form striker Alan Smith but midfield player Nick Barmby is definitely sidelined.
Betis welcome Auxerre to Seville with freezing weather and concerns over the fitness of Capi and Denilson. One positive note for coach Victor Fernández is that he can play Romanian defender Iulian Filipescu, despite a domestic ban. "I'm very excited," Filipescu said. "
It is really vital for us to win and if possible without conceding a goal."
Greeks meet Czechs
Another intriguing aspect of the night's action sees two Greek sides battle two Czech clubs as FC PAOK Thessaloniki welcome FC Slavia Praha and Panathinaikos FC travel to FC Slovan Liberec. Also in action this evening are 2001 champions Liverpool FC, who travel to SBV Vitesse, 1997 winners FC Schalke 04, who are in Poland to take on Wisla Kraków, and RSC Anderlecht, who triumphed in 1983, in France to meet FC Girondins de Bordeaux.
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