AEK needs victory against Roma in Italy

Undefeated, yet held to five draws in as many Champions League Group C games, AEK must defeat Roma on Italian turf in tonight’s final first-phase group match for a berth in the lucrative competition’s second round. A win by the Greek side would tie the two teams for the group’s second spot with eight points each, but AEK would qualify on a better overall record in their encounters. Top-placed Real Madrid, the defending champion, and a firm favorite to repeat the triumph, has already secured its place in the next round, reserved for the two top teams from eight qualifying groups. Besides losing its berth, anything less than victory at Rome’s Olympico stadium tonight would jeopardize AEK’s hold on third spot, and, consequently, a place in the inferior UEFA Cup competition as consolation. Last-placed Genk, on three points, could snatch third place, and UEFA Cup entry, if it manages to defeat Real Madrid in Belgium tonight, provided AEK fails to win in Rome. Real Madrid’s coach, Vicente del Bosque, has decided to rest several lightly injured star players, including Ronaldo and Zinedine Zidane, ahead of a crucial game against domestic league leaders Real Sociedad next weekend. «We do stand a chance, but whether this will be realized remains to be seen on the pitch. We’ve proved our worth and abilities. It’s a tough game and we will need to take risks,» AEK’s coach, Dusan Bajevic, told reporters prior to his team’s departure yesterday. «My players are ready. We can manage,» the Serb-Greek coach added. AEK’s opponent remains one of the continent’s most formidable, despite the team’s shaky form this season. Besides needing to outplay the star-studded Italian side, AEK will also need to defy history in order to win tonight. In a total of six expeditions to Italy for official competition in the club’s history, AEK has returned to Athens with as many defeats. Despite being against the odds, AEK, which has played consistently in both European and domestic competition this season – it currently shares the Greek league’s top spot with Iraklis – has no other choice than to take the pitch with victory in mind. In pre-match comments, Roma’s coach Fabio Capello stressed that his side will be seeking the three points a victory would bring, despite the absence of key players Gabriel Batistuta, injured, and Vincent Candela, who is out with the flu. Star striker Fransesco Totti, who is carrying a slight injury, has been included in Roma’s squad, but it remains uncertain whether he will play. «We’re going to go out there with the frame of mind for victory. AEK has performed well, especially when playing away, and we must respect the side. It plays fast soccer and has [Vassilis] Tsartas amid its ranks, a player who is capable of being a problem for any opponent,» Capello noted. Italian fans have so far showed subdued interest for tonight’s clash, and, according to reports, the Olympico stadium is unlikely to fill. Some 4,000 AEK fans are expected to attend, a combination of Greek travelers and students in Italy. (The game will be televised live on Mega Channel at 9.45 p.m.)

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