History beckons for the winners of the UEFA Cup final between Germany's Werder Bremen and Shakhtar Donetsk of Ukraine in Istanbul tomorrow. Both sides are appearing in the competition's final for the first time, with Shakhtar bidding to become the first Ukrainian side to win a European trophy since the collapse of the Soviet Union.
Werder are hunting their first major European honour since the 1992 Cup Winners' Cup, while both sides know that whoever wins will enter the record books as the last UEFA Cup champions before the tournament's re-launch as the UEFA Europa League next term.
The German side qualified for the final by beating arch-rivals Hamburg on the away goals rule and they also eliminated their near neighbours in the semi-finals of the German Cup, setting up a meeting with Bayer Leverkusen on 30 May. Despite their cup exploits, though, Thomas Schaap's side, who knocked out pre-tournament favourites AC Milan in the round of 32, have endured an underwhelming league season.
The 2004 German double winners have been the epitome of inconsistency, hitting five goals in victories over Bayern Munich, Hoffenheim, Hertha Berlin and Eintracht Frankfurt but struggling against the league's lesser lights. A tame 3-1 defeat at home to bottom side Karlsruhe in their penultimate league game on Saturday confirmed a tenth-placed finish prior to a thankless trip to champions-elect Wolfsburg next weekend.
Werder will be without key players for the match in the Sukru Saracoglu stadium, with Juventus-bound playmaker Diego and Portuguese striker Hugo Almeida both suspended and German international defender Per Mertesacker injured. "We will badly miss Diego in Istanbul, but we have a big enough team to win the cup," said Schaap.
Diego's Brazilian compatriot Naldo is also a doubt for the game, having missed the defeat to Karlsruhe with an adductor muscle injury. "If I am not completely fit than I will not play," said the 26-year-old centre-back. "But I will fight and give my best to be back.
"It would be unbelievably beautiful and important for us to win the UEFA Cup. Every player on our team can write their names in the history books of this club, and we want to leave our marks."
Shakhtar, last season's Ukrainian champions, go into the game after thrashing Lugansk 3-0 away from home to secure second place in this year's championship behind runaway champions Dynamo Kiev. A brace from forward Yevgen Seleznov and Brazilian midfielder Willian clinched victory and a place in the third qualifying round of next year's UEFA Champions League.
"We were the better side tonight and I believe the score is pretty fair," said Shakhtar coach Mirea Lucescu, who rested a number of first-choice players. "We all will do our best to win the UEFA Cup," he added. "I believe we have enough power and skill to win the trophy. We just need to prove it on the pitch in Istanbul."
Shakhtar are likely to be at almost full-strength, with only Czech midfielder Tomas Hubschman absent after he picked up a booking during the semi-final triumph over Dynamo. Lucescu's side have also been boosted by a report from the club doctor that Brazilian attacker Jadson should be able to play after shaking off an injury.