"The irony," noted Martin O'Neill, "is we broke our necks to get into Europe." The Aston Villa manager was commenting on his decision to pursue their European campaign, which began in the Intertoto Cup in July, by fielding a reserve team in Moscow tonight. With Harry Redknapp doing the same with Tottenham at White Hart Lane it is tempting to wonder why teams strain so hard to enter the Uefa Cup in the first place. Last season Bolton Wanderers reached the last 16 only to deploy a second-string team in a winnable tie at Sporting Lisbon.
Bolton lost, and Tottenham, who have to overturn a 2-0 first-leg deficit against Shakhtar Donetsk, and Villa, who are all-square but conceded an away goal to Zico's CSKA Moscow in the first leg, may do the same. Both clubs, however, have loftier aspirations. Villa want to hold on to a Champions League place, Tottenham contest the Carling Cup final on Sunday.
"People don't understand the job," said Redknapp. "It's just about winning a trophy. Playing on the Thursday is difficult preparation. You used to go up to Blackpool and have a jog on the beach or a stroll on the prom."
Victory on Sunday earns qualification for next season's Europa Cup, as the Uefa Cup is being renamed, but Redknapp added: "If there was no Europe I wouldn't be bothered. I hear criticism after not putting my best team out [in the first leg] against Shakhtar but Martin O'Neill has left nine out of his Aston Villa team to go to Moscow. He has his priorities right because he wants to finish high in the League. We want to stay in the Premier League so you have to prioritise.
"So does Sam Allardyce who picked half a team to face Coventry [in the FA Cup tie Blackburn lost on Tuesday]."
"Chasing a top-four spot to get a Champions League place is everything," confirmed O'Neill. Gareth Barry, Gabriel Agbonlahor, Ashley Young, Brad Friedel, James Milner, Carlos Cuellar, Stiliyan Petrov and Emile Heskey are all "rested" with a view to Sunday's league match at home to Stoke City while Martin Laursen, Nigel Reo-Coker and Wilfred Bouma are injured.
Redknapp is likely to field only one player expected to start against Manchester United at Wembley on Sunday, and Heurelho Gomes only plays because Carlo Cudicini is injured.
In the circumstances English Uefa Cup hopes may rest with Manchester City. That they are in mid-table helps, but Mark Hughes insists the competition is worthwhile anyway. He said: "When you are in Europe and playing Thursday and then Sunday in the League sometimes you think it is more trouble than it is worth. But when you go out of a competition such as the Uefa Cup, then there is a gap in your programme and a feeling of loss." City drew 2-2 in Denmark but are likely to be without Vincent Kompany (toe) and Nigel de Jong, who is ineligible, for tonight's tie against Copenhagen. Shaun Wright-Phillips, suspended for domestic matches, is eligible but must overcome an ankle injury to play.