Greeks travel in hope of upset

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The Independent Online
Football

Panathinaikos will pull off the biggest upset of the European season if they manage to derail Ajax's European Cup defence at the semi-final stage.

The Greeks go to Amsterdam for the first leg of the semi-final to take on Ajax, who are in prime form and bidding to extend a record 19-game unbeaten run in the continent's premier competition.

The Dutch league leaders have only lost once in six appearances in the semi-finals, going down 2-1 to the eventual winners, Nottingham Forest, in 1980.

Panathinaikos's Argentinian coach, Juan Ramon Rocha, was encouraged by his side's 3-0 victory over Legia Warsaw in Athens to reach the last four, having gained a 0-0 draw in Arctic conditions in Poland. "We know we are facing the best team in the world but regardless of this, who knows, we may have a rendezvous with history and beat the odds," Rocha said.

Panathinaikos, who head the Greek First Division, come into the match well rested after their scheduled game against second-placed AEK Athens was called off at the weekend to allow them to prepare for their European match.

In contrast, Ajax slipped to their third league defeat since mid-January, going down 2-0 at Roda JC Kerkrade on Saturday, although virtually their entire first-team squad was out either injured or being rested.

Most of the absentees will be back on Wednesday, but the Ajax coach, Louis van Gaal, is certainly not taking the Greek challenge lightly in the last major fixture at Amsterdam's Olympic Stadium before it is demolished and Ajax move to a new arena next season. He expects Panathinaikos to pack midfield and play with one striker.

In the other semi-final, Nantes face as daunting a task as Panathinaikos as they take on Juventus. Nantes will be hoping that the surprising success of French club in European competition this season will rub off on them.

In the quarter-final of the Cup-Winners' Cup, Paris St Germain knocked out Parma while, in the Uefa Cup, Bordeaux, who qualified through the Intertoto Cup, astonishingly overturned a 2-0 first-leg deficit to defeat Milan.

Nantes themselves staged a superb recovery to eliminate Spartak with two second-half goals in Moscow to earn their semi-final place.

Alessandro Del Piero has warned his Juventus team-mates to underestimate the French challenge at their peril. "If Nantes have got this far, then they are one of the four best sides in Europe," he said. "Perhaps they don't have any big stars, but their strength is their organisation and will to win."

Both teams have been badly hit by injuries and suspensions, Juventus will be without five players and Nantes three.

Moreno Torricelli, the former Nantes player Didier Deschamps and Antonio Conte are suspended for the Italians, while Alessio Tacchinardi and Fabrizio Ravanelli are injured.

Nantes, who have scored in the away leg of every European match they have played in the last 10 years, are without winger Reynald Pedros, who is suspended and the injured midfielders Japhet N'Doram and Claude Makalele.

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