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Devil is in detail for Pellegrini

Villarreal CF's Manuel Pellegrini may be content to grapple with Henk ten Cate of Panathinaikos FC over who should be saddled with the favourites' tag, but he is sure "every last second" of this last-16 tie will be crucial.

Manuel Pellegrini has urged focus from his Villarreal charges
Manuel Pellegrini has urged focus from his Villarreal charges ©Getty Images

They hardly featured among the tournament favourites when the UEFA Champions League got under way and, having reached the first knockout round, Villarreal CF and Panathinaikos FC are keen to maintain their status as underdogs.

'We're not favourites'
Given that these sides will play off for a quarter-final place over the next fortnight it was curious that the opening salvos from both coaches, so often about mind games, should boil down to which team would be saddled with the favourites' tag. Manuel Pellegrini, who guided the Yellow Submarine to the semi-finals in 2005/06, was unequivocal. "I don't think we are favourites for this tie and I just don't see how anyone can think we are," argued the man known as 'The Engineer'. "Panathinaikos are one of Greece's top sides, something of a European legend. It's a tough task for us and every last second of the 180 minutes will be vital in terms of form, fitness and concentration."

Important absences
Villarreal have home advantage in Wednesday's first leg, but will be without two valuable stalwarts, Joan Capdevila and Guille Franco, through suspension, while dependable centre-back Gonzalo Rodríguez is sidelined with a torn thigh muscle. "It's up to us to cope with that and show that we've started to hit good form recently," insisted Pellegrini, whose team recovered from conceding a first-minute goal to beat Real Sporting de Gijón on Saturday. "From what I've learned about Henk ten Cate's team, they are powerful, quick on the counterattack and their results in the group stage speak for themselves. But I'll ask my side to play with intensity from the off. I don't expect us to be able to establish a big lead but I do demand a home win."

Good memories
History suggests Pellegrini has cause for hope, as Panathinaikos have lost nine UEFA competition matches in Spain over the last decade. "Thanks for reminding me and my team about that, but records are there to be broken," said visiting coach Ten Cate, who has fond memories of El Madrigal himself. Having endured two defeats in Villarreal in his first two seasons as assistant to Frank Rijkaard at FC Barcelona between 2003 and 2006, it proved a case of third time lucky for the Dutchman. "I've got a very, very good memory of my last match here. Frank had flu so I took charge and we won 2-0," he said. "This is a totally different experience, though. Villarreal are the bigger club this time – they are the favourites and we the underdogs. They have more quality than us, but we'll see. Perhaps there's another surprise in store."

Rise and decline
Panathinaikos travel on the back of a morale-boosting 2-1 weekend home victory over Panionios GSS, a seventh win in ten league outings since Matchday 6 which came despite injuries to Loukas Vintra and Marcelo Mattos – who are still out. Villarreal have fared less well over the last two months, slipping from second in the Spanish Liga to a distant fourth. "I don't think my players have been saving themselves for this competition," said Pellegrini. "But the motivation when the Champions League comes back into focus is immense."