Italy's Parma AC are aiming to avoid an upset against Hapoel Tel-Aviv.
Parma AC's trip to Israel to face Hapoel Tel-Aviv has generated the same debate that surrounded Chelsea FC's visit to Tel-Aviv last October, when some players took up the club's offer not to travel.
Antonio Benarrivo, their Italian international defender, admitted he had some concerns about making the trip. Recalling that when Parma travelled to Israel to play Maccabi Tel-Aviv in a UEFA Cup Winners' Cup tie nine years ago the political atmosphere in Israel was relatively calm, Benarrivo pointed out that the current climate of unrest in the Middle East would certainly not help his side. "Clearly we players are worried about playing a game like this, even if it is our families who are most worried," he said.
Make or break
However, Benarrivo added: "As a player, you have to go. A game like this against a side that has already eliminated Chelsea could make or break our season." His coach, Pietro Carmignani, said: "This is not an anomalous game. We're going to play a game of football and I'm happy to go. Obviously, if I was going there on my holidays, I might think about it, but I'm not frightened."
On the up
It was enough of a setback for Parma that they were eliminated in the qualifying round of the UEFA Champions League by Lille OSC. Anything other than victory against their Israeli hosts would be considered a major disappointment. Parma's season has recently take a turn for the better after a disastrous start which saw them sink as low as second bottom of Serie A and change their coach twice. Under the current coach, Carmignani, they have taken 16 points from their last eight games to pull out of the relegation zone. They are now joint 13th in the table.
For Hapoel this is uncharted territory. They are the first Israeli team to reach the last 16 of the UEFA Cup and warmed up for tonight's tie with a 2-1 win at Hapoel Beer-Sheva last weekend that maintained their lead at the top of the Ligat ha-Al. "Hapoel are a good team, who play a long-ball game that can see them put a player through on goal with just two passes," said Carmignani. "Strikers [Pini] Balili and [Serghei] Kleschenko are very fast. Our problem will be containing them, and then scoring a goal. Nil-nil would be a bad result for us."
Not all the Parma players have made the journey. Alain Boghossian, Fabio Cannavaro, Matias Alymeyda and Matteo Ferrari are injured while Hakan Sükür and Sabri Lamouchi have been rested. The Italians side will feature a new-look three-man defence comprising the 35-year-old Nestor Sensini, Martin Djetou and Benarrivo. Japanese international Hidetoshi Nakata, who has been the subject of transfer talk, is likely to be recalled in midfield alongside Jorge Bolano, Marco Marchionni, Junior and Stephen Appiah. In attack, it is less clear what Carmignani will do in the absence of possibly Sukur and leading goalscorer Marco di Vaio.
'Only a game of football'
The latter just hoped that whoever played would be allowed to concentrate on the game. "For us it's only a game of football," he said. "I hope that everyone else sees it like I do - that's the spirit we're going there with."