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Europa League round of 16 draw

Europa League

Rae's Say: Not Constantinople

The column comes to you this week from the banks of the Bosphorus. A bustling conurbation, sitting astride two continents, Istanbul is Turkey's cultural and historical heart.

Before you ask, the primary reason for my journey to this sprawling city is not to purchase an oriental rug at a bargain price in the Grand Bazaar, one of the world's largest covered markets.

Then again, I am an Aberdonian and we have a reputation for being canny people when it comes to parting with our pennies.

Suffice to say, my haggling skills have been honed in the past few days with flying carpets in mind. I can even tell the difference between handmade and machine-made rugs, as well as what the colours signify. My wife wouldn't have it any other way!

But were it not for a certain football match, I wouldn't even be thinking about the nuances of Turkish and Persian knotting. The UEFA Champions League final between AC Milan and Liverpool is of course the raison d'etre behind the sojourn.

We at ESPN have decided to get here ahead of the teams and supporters. If you're a regular viewer of our panel discussion programme, ESPNSoccernet Press Pass, I'm delighted to be the bearer of good news.

On Monday and Tuesday, we'll have bonus editions of the show, from our spectacular set in the old Sultanahmet district of the city. Then on match day itself, we move over to the venue for the final, the plush, modern crescent-shaped Atatürk Olympic Stadium.

We'll have every kick of the ball on ESPN around the world, and on ESPN 2 for those of you in the USA.

As visually attractive as it is, the ground situated approximately twenty miles from Istanbul's main attractions in the Ikitelli district, has its critics. For starters, there is no public transport from the city centre, and the one main road is frequently clogged with traffic.

A two-hour drive can be expected. Plus, there's the matter of a running track separating fans from playing surface, serving to dampen the atmosphere.

Sadly there's something of the white elephant about the Atatürk. Built as the centrepiece of an ultimately unsuccessful bid to stage the 2012 Olympics, it served as Galatasaray's home stadium while re-building work was carried out at their Ali Sami Yen ground.

With a capacity of 80,000 (reduced to just under 70,000 for the final), the Atatürk Olympic Stadium will remain the primary venue for Turkish Cup finals and national team games, but it lacks the intimacy of the Ali Sami Yen, or Fenerbahce's atmospheric Sukru Saracoglu Stadium over on the Asian side of the city in Kädiköy.

Unlike World Cups, Champions League finals don't generally entail arrivals by fans en masse, until the day before the game itself. The short time frame between the semi-finals and final makes it hard to plan holidays. Many supporters will fly in on Wednesday morning, and jet back home immediately after the game

The best seat in the Ataturk Stadium, Istanbul
The best seat in the Ataturk Stadium, Istanbul

The majority of Liverpool followers will arrive at the tiny Sabiha Gökcen airport on the Asian side of the Bosphorus Straits, before being transported to Taksim Square. Turkish police are trying to set up what amounts to two 'ends' of the city, so as to keep contact between the two sets of supporters to a minimum.

Each team has been given an allocation of 20,000 tickets, although it would be no surprise if considerably more than that are here to cheer on Liverpool.

But let's get to the nitty-gritty shall we? What kind of final are we in for on Wednesday?

The pre-match chatter from the two managers, especially from Milan's Carlo Ancelotti, would suggest a dour, tactical encounter, along the lines of the 2003 final at Old Trafford. Both sides are well equipped to defend resolutely, and perhaps even to cancel each other out for long spells.

My chief worry about Liverpool concerns Sami Hyypiä, an unqualified success during this fantastic Champions League, but a player who can be made to suffer when dragged into wide areas. Andriy Shevchenko will surely try to make it his business to exploit this potential weakness.

Milan's problems are collective. As the season has progressed, the older and dare I say more plodding, the rossoneri have looked. The form of most of their players has dipped noticeably in recent weeks.

Ancelotti knows all about penalty competitions, having watched his team outshoot Juventus in the 2003 final. Liverpool manager Rafa Benitez maintains his players won't practise spot-kicks ahead of the game, subscribing to the belief that nothing can prepare a player for such a pressure-packed moment.

It won't surprise me in the slightest, if I'm still behind the ESPN microphone early on Thursday morning here in Istanbul.

Now, can you tell me the best way to send a Turkish rug back to Aberdeen?

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