Each has experienced and enjoyed the glamorous element of participation of European competitions. Now Portsmouth and Aston Villa are confronted with pivotal, if less eye-catching, ties if they are to extend their continental adventure into the New Year. Now the memorable matches against former European Cup winners Ac Milan and Ajax have been consigned to the past, tonight could determine the fate of both English teams.
Victory for Villa against the Slovakian side MSK Zilina would guarantee their presence in the last 32. Defeat for Portsmouth in Germany, where they face Wolfsburg, could curtail their first Uefa Cup campaign. Theirs is the stiffer task. Wolfsburg only stand eighth in the Bundesliga, but they are unbeaten at home this season and invested heavily in the summer, purchasing two of Italy's World Cup winners in Andrea Barzagli and Cristian Zaccardo.
While Wolfsburg's top scorer, Grafite, is absent, Portsmouth are depleted. John Utaka and Lassana Diarra are both sidelined and it is far from certain captain Sol Campbell will be able to return. With five games in 16 days, rotation is an issue for manager Tony Adams. "The game could be a chance to give other people a chance and rest some legs," he said. "I think one or two are a little bit tired. We are running on empty at the moment. I'm taking the Uefa Cup very seriously, though."
Villa are too, but their 100 percent start to the competition affords them room for error and allows Martin O'Neill to tinker. Fringe players such as Marlon Harewood, Moustapha Salifou and Brad Guzan will be granted rare starts. Harewood may have the greatest incentive to impress. With John Carew struggling with a back injury, there could be a vacancy in the Villa attack, even though O'Neill hopes the Norwegian will not need surgery.
Gareth Barry, one of the few to have experienced European football for Villa before, says memories of the victory over Ajax should spur on a makeshift side against the group's rank outsiders. "It was a tremendous night against Ajax," he said. "The noise was electrifying. It is great to be playing on nights like that at Villa Park." @Email:email@example.com