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Dinamo primed to progress at PAOK's expense

Vahid Halilhodžić says the decisive Group D encounter with PAOK FC is one of those "moments for which you live and work" as NK Dinamo Zagreb bid to pip the Greek club to the round of 32.

Vitolo (left) challenges Milan Badelj in the reverse fixture on Matchday 2
Vitolo (left) challenges Milan Badelj in the reverse fixture on Matchday 2 ©Getty Images

Should NK Dinamo Zagreb defeat PAOK FC in UEFA Europa League Group D, Vahid Halilhodžić's team will not only pip their opponents to a place in the round of 32 but also end 41 years of continental frustration.

Not since 1969/70 and a UEFA Cup Winners' Cup quarter-final loss to FC Schalke 04 have the Croatian club featured in European competition in the spring. To make that a reality once again, third-placed Dinamo must overcome a PAOK side for whom a draw will be enough to advance alongside section leaders Villarreal CF. If the latter lose to eliminated Club Brugge KV, however, Dinamo could yet win the group.

"I couldn't wish for a better ending to the first half of the season," said Halilhodžić, who has guided Dinamo to the top of the Croatian First League going into the winter break. "This match is like the cream on a cake. I've heard that our stadium will be full and we are going to achieve something that many previous Dinamo generations failed to − to stay in Europe over the winter.

"These are the matches I like the most; these are the moments for which you live and work," added Halilhodžić, who took over at Dinamo in August when Velimir Zajec was dismissed. "That's why I am happy to be in a situation where whether we remain in Europe or not is decided. It is because of matches like this that I came to Dinamo."

Halilhodžić is likely to be without right-sided defender Šime Vrsaljko, but Tomislav Barbarić and Leandro Cufré could return as Dinamo seek to avenge a 1-0 loss on Matchday 2. "I told my players they don't have anything to fear," continued Halilhodžić. "In the eyes of my players I see ambition, will and concentration."

PAOK, meanwhile, have a number of fitness concerns to contend with. Stelios Malezas and Zlatan Muslimović are definitely unavailable while Vladimir Ivić, scorer of the winning goal in the reverse fixture, is a major doubt alongside Zuela and Vitolo.

Though a draw will do, coach Ioakim Havos has promised to send his side out in search of all three points. "Although we have a lot injury problems I still have a team that plays with their hearts and we will take what we came for," he said. "We always go for the victory and we are not interested in 0-0."

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