Thu, Feb 26, 2009 - Page 18 News List

‘Second-tier’ UEFA Cup struggling to retain allure

SECOND-STRING STARS Spurs and Aston Villa are both set to field weakened teams as they prioritize domestic competitions over the chance to earn glory in Europe

AP , LONDON

The UEFA Cup has struggled to retain its luster over recent years and at least two managers are apparently unimpressed with Europe’s second-tier club championship.

Two-time cup winners Tottenham aim to recover a 2-0 deficit when they host Shakhtar Donetsk in one of today’s 16 second-leg matches, but manager Harry Redknapp has placed the tournament third on his list of priorities.

The meeting with Shakhtar is the third of six matches in 17 days for Spurs and, with English Premier League survival and Sunday’s English League Cup final against Manchester United more important to the club, Redknapp is set to field a second-string side against the Ukrainian club.

“Whoever heard of you playing Thursday night before playing a cup final at the weekend?” Redknapp said. “You don’t play Thursday night. You go away for two or three days and have a rest.”

With Redknapp apparently ambivalent about his team’s prospects of progress in Europe, 17-year-old midfielders John Bostock and Dean Parrett are likely to play so that more established players can rest ahead of Sunday’s final at Wembley.

That suggests Shakhtar are more likely to advance to the next round, where they will meet Aston Villa or CSKA Moscow.

The 2005 winners CSKA grabbed a valuable away goal when they drew 1-1 at Villa two weeks ago and, like Redknapp, Villa manager Martin O’Neill seems to be looking elsewhere for success this season.

While Villa cruised through the group stage, O’Neill’s attempt to guide his team to success in the Premier League means he has left first-team regulars Gareth Barry, Stilian Petrov, Ashley Young, Brad Friedel, Emile Heskey and Gabriel Agbonlahor at home.

Villa lost 1-0 at Chelsea on Saturday but are still fourth in the Premier League, a position that would earn them a place in next year’s Champions League — the tournament that has done most to reduce the UEFA Cup’s lure through its steady expansion.

“We want to keep momentum going in the Premier League,” O’Neill said. “But we don’t really have the size of squad that Manchester United, Liverpool, Chelsea and Arsenal can call on. That’s not being defeatist, that’s just being realistic.”

“None of the players mentioned the first leg against CSKA Moscow as an excuse for the Chelsea defeat. But I will,” he said.

AC Milan continue their rare foray into the UEFA Cup when they host Werder Bremen, with who they drew 1-1 two weeks ago, while Fiorentina need to overturn a 1-0 deficit when they travel to Ajax.

Defending champions Zenit St Petersburg play Stuttgart away. The Germans will be without midfielder Yildiray Bastuerk and defenders Matthieu Delpierre and Arthur Boka because of injury. Another defender, Ludovic Magnin has had a heavy cold and is doubtful.

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