Huub Stevens wants his PAOK FC side to "rejoice at the opportunity" to grab a UEFA Champions League group stage spot, with his old club FC Schalke 04 eager to bar their way.
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Huub Stevens insists that all the pressure is on FC Schalke 04 as he attempts to steer PAOK FC past his old club and into the UEFA Champions League group stage for the first time in their history.
The Greek hopefuls gave themselves an excellent platform to progress from the play-offs with a 1-1 draw in Gelsenkirchen last week, Miroslav Stoch levelling the scores after Jefferson Farfán had struck for the hosts in the first half. That ensured that a goalless draw at the Stadio Toumba on Tuesday will be enough to take PAOK through, but Stevens has endeavoured to play down the mood of rising expectation.
"The first leg result hasn't changed the odds – it's still a 50-50 tie," said the Dutchman, who had two spells at the Schalke helm, most recently leading them into the UEFA Champions League knockout phase before his dismissal in December last year. "We're very motivated and we want to qualify, without considering it an obligation to go through. Schalke are under pressure – we are not.
"It's a very important match, but we shouldn't be stressed about it. We should rejoice at the opportunity to be here and be able to contend for a place in the Champions League group stage. We should have our feet firmly on the ground. Life will go on no matter the result."
Hampering their chances is the fact that they will be missing a number of key figures, with Lino out with a hamstring injury and both Liam Lawrence and Costin Lazăr sidelined with calf complaints, but Stevens feels he has adequate replacements to step in. "We have the quality in our roster to overcome the absences," he explained. "It's also an opportunity for those who come in to show their potential."
The visitors themselves are not without injury woes, with key men Klaas-Jan Huntelaar, Kyriakos Papadopoulos and Sead Kolasinac all guaranteed to miss the second leg, while Joel Matip and Leon Goretzka face a late fitness test. "This is a very important match for the club, for everybody at Schalke," said coach Jens Keller, who is hoping for an upturn in fortunes after the club's underwhelming Bundesliga start, in which they have taken one point from three games.
"The pressure would be huge in any case, regardless of our run in the league," he said. "The 1-1 first-leg result is not ideal, but it is not fatal. We experienced the inverse scenario last season [in the round of 16], when we drew 1-1 with Galatasaray in Istanbul and then got eliminated at home. We have worked hard to reach this point. If we make it to the group stage, the team stand to benefit a lot from their participation in the Champions League."
Midfielder Jermaine Jones also recognises the significance of making the group stage. "We all know what this match means, what is at stake," said the United States international. "Everybody, players and coaching staff, will do our best to qualify for the group stage. We have a specific objective and everyone is pushing in the same direction."