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FC Schalke 04 coach Mirko Slomka is urging his side to put their disappointing league form behind them and play with "pride and joy" when they welcome Sevilla FC to Gelsenkirchen for their UEFA Cup semi-final first leg on Thursday night.
The German club have not won in five Bundesliga outings, slipping to fourth in the standings, but Slomka is refusing to let domestic travails distract his team from their European agenda. "We have to forget our recent league results and focus on this very special event," he said. "It's not every day you get the chance to play for a place in a European final. We have to be ready with pride and joy for these matches against Sevilla. We will have to fight and play well if we are to progress to the final."
The coach could opt to start with Gerald Asamoah and Søren Larsen up front, with Lincoln and Kevin Kuranyi likely to be on the bench despite the former scoring in both legs of Schalke's quarter-final victory over PFC Levski Sofia. "I dropped Lincoln and Kuranyi against [1. FC] Köln on Saturday because they did not play well the previous weekend," explained Slomka, who has Fabian Ernst available after a one-match ban. "Both are excellent players and of great value to Schalke, but right now they are not at their best. Therefore it might be that both start on the bench against Sevilla."
In addition, Schalke are still without long-term absentees Christian Pander and Manuel Neuer while centre-forward Ebbe Sand is struggling to overcome a stomach complaint. "Sand started suffering on Tuesday and feels a bit weak," Slomka said. "The rest of the players are fit and ready for this tie, which will be a highlight of their careers. I've been impressed by Sevilla's technical quality. They are defensively stable with a strong spine and a quick, talented attack. [Javier] Saviola and [Frédéric] Kanouté are world-class players."
Sevilla will be cheered on by almost 3,000 supporters at the Arena Aufschalke as they seek to overcome the 1996/97 UEFA Cup winners and are buoyed by the news that Kanouté and Antonio Puerta are fit to travel. Coach Juande Ramos must nevertheless do without striker Kepa Blanco, who was suspended for four matches following his dismissal against FC Zenit St. Petersburg in the quarter-final second leg, while long-term casualties Ariza Makukula and Pablo Ruiz remain sidelined. Ivica Dragutinović and Jordi López are also missing, with a sprained left knee and pulled hamstring, respectively.
Their hopes may rest on the shoulders of Saviola, who has scored six goals in this season's competition, yet who believes Sevilla should expect the unexpected: "Anything can happen in a semi-final. We all have to work together to achieve a good result. It's one of the most important games in my career and we have a good chance of reaching the final."
Team-mate Enzo Maresca echoes that view, adding that the Spanish club must not be complacent: "The first leg is important, but it never decides the tie. There are no favourites - Schalke have a lot of experience in Europe, but there are always surprises in football and we hope this will be the case here."
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