Internazionale FC must put aside all thoughts of their Serie A title quest at AEK Athens.
Internazionale FC, currently joint top of Serie A with champions AS Roma, must put aside all thoughts of their forthcoming league fixtures when they face AEK Athens in the second leg of their UEFA Cup fourth-round tie in Greece tonight.
After the match, in which Inter will strive to defend a 3-1 advantage, they face critical league fixtures against Milan AC and third-place Juventus FC. A schedule which led Inter president Massimo Moratti to warn his players this week: "Concentrate on the derby with Milan only after Thursday night."
With an eye on those games coach Héctor Cúper will rest leading scorer Christian Vieri as well as other first-choice players. Those likely to start on the bench include Uruguyan international Alvaro Recoba, midfield player Luigi di Biagio and central defender Marco Materazzi. Turkish duo Okan Buruk and Emre Belözoglu, Frenchman Stéphane Dalmat, Greek international Grigorios Georgatos and Argentinian pair Nelson Vivas and Gonzalo Sorondo are all ruled out through injury.
In the absence of Vieri, Cúper, who could face the intriguing prospect of a quarter-final encounter with former club Valencia CF, is likely to pair Mohammed Kallon and Nicola Ventola in attack with Argentinian Andres Guglielminpietro returning to the left side of midfield.
'Physically and mentally tough'
Ventola, scorer of one of Inter's goals in the 3-2 defeat of Udinese at the San Siro last weekend, said: "Obviously we'd like to beat Milan so that we go into the game with Juventus a point in front of them. But first we'd better think about Athens because that will be a tough game, physically and mentally. AEK are a good team. They're leading their league and they looked good to me in the first leg. We've been looking at tapes of them and at home they're pretty impressive."
Not a lost cause
AEK do not believe that the tie is a lost cause and coach Fernando Santos has urged his team to go flat out in pursuit of victory after an encouraging performance in the first game. They, too, face a crucial league game on Sunday, against Panathinaikos FC, and they have their own share of injuries with playmaker Vassilios Tsartas and defensive midfield player Andreas Zikos injured during the game with Ethnikos Asteras last weekend. The 1-0 victory leaves AEK with a two-point advantage over Olympiakos Piraeus FC and three clear of a Panathinaikos side who are looking strong in the UEFA Champions League.
'We hold our head high'
"We are modest but we hold our head high," Santos said. "We, as people of football, have to get on the pitch and fight for qualification." When asked why he did not protect some of his players to have them fit for the game with Panathinaikos, he replied: "I am a professional and my job, as a coach, is to lead my team to victory in every game we play. I know that we had more than our share in injuries, but we always focus on our goal, which is to win."
'Dream to qualify'
Tsartas was declared fit enough after the final training session to start the game while Santos will leave it until the last minute to decide the readiness of in-form striker Themistoklis Nikolaidis for a match he knows his side can win. "Many think that our loss to Inter in the first leg deprives us of our dream to qualify, but I do not share this opinion," Santos added. "As for Panathinaikos, we'll think about them when the time comes."