FOOTBALL: Milan find the right stimulus

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The Independent Online

Milan's Croat midfielder, Zvonimir Boban, believes the reigning European and Italian champions are back to their best, just in time for tonight's European Cup quarter-final against Benfica at the San Siro stadium.

"The Champions' Cup provides just the right stimulus for us, and we're the strongest side in the world in a two-leg tie," Boban said. "This Milan is not far away from the one which won the final in Athens last May. Perhaps that side was more solid, while this one is more creative."

Boban is the first to admit Milan have fallen well below their own high standards this season, losing four Italian Serie A games and being beaten twice by the Dutch champions, Ajax Amsterdam, in the Champions' League.

For tonight's match, Milan will be almost at full strength, with Christian Panucci, Marcel Desailly, and Demetrio Albertini all having recovered from knocks picked up in Sunday's 3-1 league win against Cremonese.

Their influential left-back, Paolo Maldini, returns after suspension, but central defender Alessandro Costacurta is ruled out through injury, and will probably be replaced by Fillippo Galli.

Artur Jorge, the Benfica coach previously with Paris St-Germain, is under no illusions about the task facing the Portuguese side. "We all saw what happened to Barcelona against Milan last year. A Milan side that wins in that fashion is far from finished," he said.

Luis Fernandez, the coach of Paris St-Germain, comes face to face with his idol tonight when his team meets Barcelona in their European Cup quarter- final. Johan Cruyff is the man Fernandez most admires in football, and is the coach he must ouwit at the Nou Camp if he is to make his mark in his first season with the French champions.

After PSG sacked Jorge eight months ago - despite his having led them to the French championship - the inexperienced Fernandez took charge, without the aid of a coaching diploma and with only one year's experience at Cannes.

Fernandez said he expects a "mad, mad, mad game" against Barcelona, as well as a flurry of goals. He will be counting on his Liberian striker, George Weah, who is the top scorer in the Champions' League with six goals. Fernandez has a full squad at his disposal, with no major injuries or suspensions. The Brazilian midfielder, Rai, starts the match on the bench.

Bayern Munich, playing their 101st European Cup match, meet IFK Gothenburg for the first time in their history. They are without their captain, Lothar Matthus, who is out for the rest of the season after rupturing an Achilles tendon. Bayern are also missing Jean-Pierre Papin, Oliver Kahn and the Swiss international, Alain Sutter.

One consolation for Bayern is that midfielder Christian Ziege is making a swift return to the side after pulling an ankle ligament earlier this month.

Giovanni Trapattoni, the Bayern trainer, makes a departure from his usual defensive tactics, to pair Emil Kostadinov up front with Alexander Zickler, supported by Mehmet Scholl and Marcel Witeczek.

Gothenburg's trainer, Roger Gustafsson, said it was an advantage for his side to come fresh to Munich as the Swedish season only starts in five weeks time. "This is good for us," he said. "We could prepare ourselves for these games without any championship stress."

The Swedish international, Jesper Blomqvist, will be missing from the Gothenburg side because of illness. Blomqvist did not make the journey to Germany as he had a fever.

The last of the four quarter-final first-leg matches takes Ajax, of Amsterdam, to Hajduk Split. They met in last season's Cup-Winners' Cup first round when Ajax lost the away leg 1-0, but won the return 6-0.