The Uefa Cup may be a bit of an Ugly Duckling of a competition, a strange hybrid forever in the shadow of the Champions League; but the trophy itself is mammoth, a handsome chunk of silverware to grace any club’s sideboard. And now that we’re down to the last four, the clubs still involved are desperate to get their hands on it.
One of the quartet has already held it: Schalke 04 were winners in 1996/97, the last year in which the final was played over two legs. Schalke beat Internazionale 1-0 in Gelsenkirchen while Inter won the return 1-0 at the San Siro. And after extra-time failed to separate them, the Bundesliga side won a penalty shoot-out 4-1. Arsenal’s man-of-the-moment Jens Lehmann was in goal for Schalke nine years ago and excelled in the shoot-out.
But Schalke’s chances of emulating that success are generally perceived to have diminished following last week’s goalless draw at home to Sevilla, whose stadium they visit tonight in search of victory.
It may be some comfort to the Germans to know that Huub Stevens, their coach when they won in 1997, believes they can succeed again. Currently coaching Dutch side Roda, Stevens told Uefa’s official website: “Of course they still have a chance. Last weekend at Werder Bremen they proved that they can perform away from home [they drew 0-0]. There is enough quality in the team to score in Sevilla and then I can’t see any reason why they should not advance.”
Tonight’s game coincides with the Feria de Sevilla, a week-long annual celebration of Andalusian customs such as flamenco dancing. So there is sure to be festive atmosphere inside Sevilla’s Ramon Sanchez-Pizjuan stadium, with the home fans hoping their side can reach a European final in their centenary season.
Coach Juande Ramos sounded a word of caution, however. “We cannot afford to get carried away by the euphoria. It is a difficult situation because we need to score, but we can’t concede either. I don’t like the result as it stands and we have a lot of work still to do,” Ramos told uefa.com.
He is looking for the likes of Argentine star Javier Saviola to inspire the side to victory, though his selection options have been constrained by suspensions for Javi Navarro and Kepa Blanco, while Ivica Dragutinovic and Fredi Kanoute may miss out through injury. However, striker Ariza Makukula is available after a lengthy spell on the sidelines.
Saviola – who scored twice in Sevilla’s 4-1 home win over Zenit St. Petersburg in the quarter-final – says: “We want to enjoy and make the most of this match because we don’t know when we will play another semi-final like this. We have to play our football, which has got us this far, and be very fast and dangerous.”
Sevilla’s scheduled game against Barcelona last weekend had to be postponed when a heavy deluge made the pitch unplayable, so thay have inadvertently enjoyed a bit of a break.
But Schalke will not make it easy for the Spaniards. Manager Mirko Slomka is without influential defender Mladen Krstajic following his red card in the first-leg, but Uruguayan Darío Rodríguez should be fit to strengthen the defence.
Schalke midfielder Christian Poulsen said: “It was important not to concede at home, and a 1-1 draw in Seville will be good enough for us. We are certainly strong enough to stand our ground in Spain and reach the final.”
They can point to having scored three away goals in Bulgaria in the quarter-final when beating Levski Sofia 3-1, and striker Gerald Asamoah reckons, “We are always likely to score, although the chances are still 50/50.” Asamoah’s fellow striker Ebbe Sand said: “This is my first European semi-final and my last chance to win a big title. I hope everyone in our team is as motivated as I am.”
The other semi-final sees English Premiership side Middlesbrough entertain a top Romanian side in Steaua Bucharest. Boro are trailing 0-1 from the first-leg – when they could well have gone down by a heavier score – and manager Steve McClaren is exhorting his troops to seize the moment and make club history. He sees this game as among the biggest the club has ever faced, and the perfect antidote to the disappointment of last Sunday, when Boro lost an FA Cup semi-final to West Ham United.
Much may depend on the return from injury of powerfully-built but technically gifted Australian striker Mark Viduka. He had to miss the last two matches with a thigh injury and his presence has in turn been missed by the team. His strength makes him an ideal target man, capable of holding up play until support arrives – or of going it alone.
Viduka told uefa.com. “I’ve never been in the semi-finals of the UEFA Cup, I got to the UEFA Champions League semis with Leeds, but it’s a new experience for myself and for all of us, and it’s a great thing to be part of. Playing against great teams in European competition is good for us and it’s good for the club. I’m playing as well now as at any time in my career and I’m enjoying myself. There’s been a big turnaround at this club, but that’s what football’s like; a couple of months ago we were all coming in for some pretty strong criticism and it’s all turned round. I think it’s down to mental strength, a bit of luck, a bit of determination and a bit of never-say-die attitude.”
Viduka has scored seven goals in his last eleven games, including two against Basle in the quarter-final second leg in which Boro came back from 0-3 down on aggregate to win 4-3.
As for opponents Steaua, they lead through Nicolae Dica’s first-half goal in Bucharest. But they are without midfielders Banel Nicolita and Sorin Paraschiv, both suspended. However, striker Victoras Iacob could return after a month out with a shoulder injury. Coach Cosmin Olaroiu could also go with Daniel Balan and Florin Lovin.
If Boro are looking to make history, so are Steaua. They want to become the first Romanian side to reach the Uefa Cup final. However, 20 years ago they upset the odds by beating Barcelona on penaltries after a 0-0 draw in the final of the European Cup (now the Champions League). Three years later Steaua reached the European Cup final again, but this time lost 0-4 to AC Milan.
Coach Olaroiu believes his side will need to get a goal at The Riverside. “We will have to score at least once; playing for a draw would be fatal against a very good team with high-quality players. But it’s their last chance to win something this season, so the pressure is bigger for them. We have faced more difficult situations and overcome all of them.”