LONDON -- Italian interest in this
season's European club competitions could be ended on Thursday,
with city rivals AC Milan and Inter Milan both facing difficult
hurdles as they bid to qualify for the UEFA Cup semifinals.
Five-time European champions AC Milan will need all of its
experience to avoid becoming the latest scalp of Israeli
giantkillers Hapoel Tel Aviv.
Hapoel travels to Milan's San Siro fortress with a 1-0
advantage from its quarterfinal first leg as the club seeks to
send the Italians the same way as previous big-name victims
Parma and Chelsea.
Inter visits Spanish side Valencia -- coach Hector
Cuper's old club -- knowing it has to score after a 1-1 draw
in the first leg.
With Juventus and AS Roma failing to make the last eight of
the Champions League, Italian soccer's stock will fall to a
depressingly low level should Milan's two teams fall by the
wayside on Thursday.
By contrast, Hapoel has already created history by becoming
the first Israeli side to reach the last eight of the UEFA Cup.
The club's shock first-leg win, secured by Moldovan Sergei
Clescenco's goal, was made all the more impressive by the fact
that it had to play the 'home leg' in Cyprus because of
security concerns in Israel.
Hapoel arrived in Italy bolstered by the news that its
coach, Dror Kashtan, has just signed a new two-year contract
with an option for a third year.
For the club's players, the chance to perform in one of European
football's most famous stadiums is a dream come true.
"This is what every player wants to do," said Hungarian
midfielder Istvan Pishont.
Attacking midfielder Ben Luz misses the match through
injury, while left-back Yigal Antebi is suspended after picking
up a yellow card in the first leg.
Failure in front of its own fans would be catastrophic for
Carlo Ancelotti's Milan, who has endured a season of mediocrity
in Serie A, although Sunday's 2-1 win over Torino has at least
boosted the team's confidence.
Milan's Danish defender Martin Lauresen knows his side is
up against it.
"If we concede a goal then that means we will need to score
three," he said. "They will be hugely motivated, both because of
the situation in their country and the huge support that will
follow them over here. It is the game of their lives."
Milan is missing Ukrainian forward Andriy Shevchenko due to
a thigh injury, but Italy striker Filippo Inzaghi is fit again
after three months out.
It will be an emotional return to Valencia for Inter's
Argentine coach Cuper, who left the Spanish club for Italy in
the summer after taking it to two consecutive Champions League
Mindful of Sunday's top of the table Serie A clash with
Roma, Cuper has left Christian Vieri out of his squad.
The striker, rested for the first leg, is suffering from a
bruised foot and limped out of the 1-0 Serie A victory over
Lecce on Sunday.
Brazilian Ronaldo is not ready to return so Cuper is likely
to opt for Alvaro Recoba and Nicola Ventola in attack.
Valencia lost the leadership of the Spanish first division
last weekend when it suffered a shock 2-1 defeat at Rayo
Vallecano and coach Rafael Benitez is likely to make several
John Carew is favorite to replace Salva Ballesta up front,
with Argentine playmaker Pablo Aimar slotting in behind the
giant Norwegian. Winger Kily Gonzalez, sent off in the first
leg, is suspended.
The two other quarterfinals are equally tight.
German side Borussia Dortmund offered little in the 0-0 draw
against Slovan Liberec in Prague last week, but found its
scoring touch in spectacular style in a 5-1 win at SC Freiburg
in the Bundesliga on Sunday.
Coach Matthias Sammer, who has no major injury problems,
urged his men to "try harder" than they did in Prague.
Feyenoord had the better of a 1-1 draw in its all-Dutch
clash with PSV in Eindhoven last week and the Rotterdam side,
whose ground will host the final, warmed up for the return by
beating Den Bosch 3-0 last weekend.
Coach Bert van Marwijk's only injury worry is winger
Bonaventure Kalou, who has a back problem. Defender Patrick
Paauwe returns after a one-match ban.
PSV, third in the Dutch first division, faces a make-or-break
week with a game against league leaders Ajax, whom it trails by
seven points, to come on Sunday.
Coach Eric Gerets is without suspended defender Kevin
Hofland and the concussed Johann Vogel.