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Martin Jol, the Hamburg manager, is prepared for a tough battle against Aston Villa.
Martin Jol, the Hamburg manager, is prepared for a tough battle against Aston Villa.
Martin Jol, the Hamburg manager, is prepared for a tough battle against Aston Villa.

Top spot the incentive for Villa and Co.

With three teams qualifying, the Uefa Cup looks to be a confused muddle as it enters the finale of the group stages but finishing top is the target.

With three teams qualifying, the Uefa Cup looks to be a confused muddle as it enters the finale of the group stages. But finishing top is the target as those already through look ahead to the next round. Aston Villa, Hamburg and Ajax all have the chance to be Group F winners and avoid a tougher test in the knockout phase. That is when the third-place finishers from the Champions League enter and few would want to meet Marseille, Dynamo Kiev or Fiorentina. Hamburg host Villa and their coach Martin Jol said: "It will be anything but a friendly game."

Villa will prove a major obstacle, as they sit fourth in England's Premier League. Their young strike duo Ashley Young and Gabriel Agbonlahor have impressed this season, but Martin O'Neill is also looking for another man to make his mark now that he is back in the side after injury problems. Steve Sidwell always proved a goalscoring threat when at Reading and is now getting the chance to repeat that at Villa Park after his disappointing spell at Chelsea.

The midfielder has three so far, but O'Neill said: "He certainly has the ability to score goals. That's the great thing about Steve. Given an ordinary amount of time on the pitch over an entire season, he will get into double figures." Ajax will hoping for a draw in Hamburg so they can take top spot by beating Slavia Prague at home. Group E also has an interesting look with AC Milan hoping to topple current leaders Wolfsburg with victory at the San Siro.

Carlo Ancelotti's men are smarting from the Serie A defeat to Juventus and the loss of their combative midfielder Gennaro Gattuso for six months with a knee injury. The winter break and their camp in Dubai seems to have come at the perfect time for Milan, but their coach is eager to finish this year on a high. "This team wants to have an important season, but we are going through a delicate moment," he said. "We want to finish first in the Uefa Cup group and beat Udinese on Sunday to reach the break in a positive way."

Portsmouth play for pride as they host Heerenveen, but Tony Adams could do with a win to lift morale. A run of one victory in seven has put him under pressure and, after Paul Ince's departure at Blackburn, it shows no manager is safe. akhan@thenational.ae

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