AEK Athens 2-2 Internazionale FC (Agg: 3-5)
Internazionale FC comfortably navigated their way into the last eight of the UEFA Cup after securing a 2-2 draw against AEK Athens in the Nikos Goumas stadium to win 5-3 on aggregate.
Inter's fourth-round triumph means their coach Héctor Cúper faces an emotional meeting in the quarter-finals with his former club Valencia CF, whom he left at the end of last season to move to the San Siro. Cuper guided the Spanish club - who beat Servette FC in the fourth round - to two successive UEFA Champions League finals. And on the evidence of Inter's display in Athens, the Argentinian coach could well be stalking the technical area in Feyenoord's Rotterdam stadium come May.
Inter had been welcomed by a backdrop of flares rocketing into the Athens night sky as the game kicked off. But Vratislav Gresko's well-executed free-kick opener on 21 minutes only served to douse AEK's hopes. The frustration for AEK was that the free-kick should have been avoided - Michalis Kasapis hauled down Sérgio Conceição after the AEK player had miscontrolled.
Even so on 23 minutes - two minutes after the Slovakian's goal - AEK drew level on the night when Sotirios Konstantinidis headed home Tsartas' cross. It was also Tsartas' pinpoint pass to Demis Nikolaidis ten minutes after the restart that momentarily had AEK believing that the impossible might just happen. Nikolaidis timed his run well and cleverly tucked the ball away. But within a minute Nicola Ventola had restored parity when he collected Christiano Zanetti's pass and steered his shot past Dionissis Chiotis.
The timing of Inter's goal left a bitter taste in the mouth of the AEK coach Fernando Santos. "The luckier team went through," he said. "We are very upset because during both matches my players showed they were worthy of qualifying. Inter had two goalscoring chances and they managed to score twice."
Game, set and match
Ventola's goal meant AEK needed to score three times in just over 30 minutes and the deathly hush that descended on the Nikos Goumas stadium as Ventola celebrated confirmed that game was all but over. Throughout the match, AEK battled gamely, but Inter gave the impression they rarely needed to step up a gear. "I am very pleased because my players showed character throughout the game," said Cúper. "Our main concern was Tsartas, but at no time did we fear that qualification would escape us."
If Cúper's side do go all the way to Rotterdam it will be the fourth successive year that the Argentinian has guided a team to a European final, having also taken RCD Mallorca to the UEFA Cup Winners' Cup final in 1999. Cúper will be hoping for better luck this year, though, as he has yet to see one of his teams lift a European trophy.