Auxerre will look to a little-known talent to topple AC Milan’s star-studded team in the Champions League on Tuesday.
Frederic Sammaritano is a total unknown in world football compared to Milan’s Zlatan Ibrahimovic, Andrea Pirlo or Robinho, but the tiny winger has been making a name for himself since signing from second division Vannes in January.
At just 1.62 meters, he will be harder to spot than the 1.92-meter Ibrahimovic, but with Auxerre’s main strikers sidelined by injury, coach Jean Fernandez hopes Sammaritano’s trickery can unlock Milan’s defense and get the French club back in the race to reach the last 16.
With Real Madrid comfortably leading Group G with 10 points, Milan, Ajax and Auxerre are scrapping for second place.
Although Auxerre is in last place with three points, a win can move it a point ahead of Milan with a game to play. Ajax is in second place with four points and hosts unbeaten Madrid.
"We’ve got to win in Auxerre, this game is just as important as the matches in the Italian league," said Ibrahimovic, who has won domestic league titles with Ajax, Barcelona and Inter Milan but never claimed Europe’s biggest club prize.
Sammaritano’s journey is the total opposite to Ibrahimovic’s. He was released from Nantes four years ago and made his way back through non-league Yzeure, then the third and second divisions with Vannes until he caught Fernandez’s eye, who overlooked his small size.
"Every since I was young I’ve been up against it physically, because in modern football today there are a lot of physical players," Sammaritano said. "I tried to use my size to my advantage."
He was the club’s fourth-choice signing last summer, after Fernandez failed to persuade either Lille’s Ludovic Obraniak, Paris Saint-Germain’s Clement Chantome or Lorient’s Morgan Amalfitano to join.
Fernandez has not regretted it since, but admits he almost overlooked him.
"He scored two goals in the League Cup, he scored in the Champions League and he scored on his (French) league debut. We sense that he can score because he’s very composed in front of goal," Fernandez said. "At one stage we messed up a bit. We were looking for players who were very athletic, very powerful, but who had no sense of how to play."
Getting Fernandez’s seal of approval is no small feat considering he spotted former France great Zinedine Zidane when he was just 14, took a gamble on the unknown Franck Ribery by bringing him to Metz six years ago, and helped nurture Samir Nasri’s talent when he was at Marseille.
Ribery and Nasri went on to become internationals and are now starring at Bayern Munich and Arsenal, respectively.
Auxerre needs Sammaritano’s touch even more as it has been without strikers Irineusz Jelen and Anthony Le Tallec for the past two months, while left midfielder Steeven Langil will be out at least three weeks as he requires knee surgery.
Langil scored the winner in a 2-1 victory over Ajax at Stade Abbe-Deschamps three weeks ago that kept Auxerre’s slim hopes alive.
The 24-year-old Sammaritano also scored in that win, although it has not really sunk in yet.
"From an emotional point of view it’s huge to be able to score in such a prestigious competition," he said.
Milan, meanwhile, is in good form with four straight league wins and tops Serie A.
That run has coincided with Ibrahimovic’s return to form, with the Sweden striker scoring in his last three games to take his tally to 10 in all competitions.
Italy midfielder Pirlo will miss the match as he continues to struggle with a thigh muscle problem, and Mathieu Flamini is likely to continue in his absence after playing the full 90 minutes over the last four league games.
With Alexandre Pato and Filippo Inzaghi out injured, Robinho will probably pair with Ibrahimovic in attack, with either Clarence Seedorf or Ronaldinho in the playmaker position.