Football clubs study their European Cup rivals

UEFA Headquarters hosts draw for Champions League and Europa League
By Dmitry Baranovsky

Belarus is to be represented by four squads within the tournaments, with BATE Borisov defending the honour of Belarusian football in the Champions League. In previous years, the team has reached the group stage of Europe’s major tournament, facing mighty Barcelona and Milan, so special hopes are pinned on the squad. The Borisov footballers will begin in the second qualifying round, playing against Vardar from Skopje.

The Macedonian club are surely not the most serious rivals but will present some challenge, having already beaten Moscow CSKA. The team has played rather erratically of late but, returning to the elite division of their country’s championship after one year’s absence, Vardar is now champion and, certainly, a ‘dark horse’. Undoubtedly, BATE should have the upper hand but no one, even the Macedonians, can forecast what may happen.

Borisov may waver, having so much pressure placed on them by fans, who will be hoping for a quick and easy victory. Few will remember the efforts taken by the team to defeat modest Linfield from Northern Ireland last year. “When Vardar were selected, I recollected our successful game against Macedonia three years ago,” notes Victor Goncharenko, BATE Borisov’s head coach. “I think our rival will show discipline, organisation and character. However, the Macedonian Championship finished in late May, so they may not be as cohesive as they were.”

Europe’s second most important tournament — the Europa League — will see Belarus represented by three teams: Shakhtyor and Naftan will begin in the second round, where we cannot predict their success. Soligorsk’s Shakhtyor will face Austrian Rid — not the most outstanding team, but Austrian football is at a higher level than in Belarus, hinting for an uneasy ride. In recent years, Shakhtyor has been experiencing a certain ‘complex’ at European Cup events. They do well at home, then crumble when faced with European rivals. “In my opinion, the game against Rid isn’t the worst case scenario,” muses head coach Vladimir Zhuravel. “We could have faced even more challenging opponents. Austria is Austria; it seems to me that they play on strength rather than strategy.”

Naftan faces a much more imposing rival: Belgrade’s Crvena Zvezda. Sadly, the Belarus Cup champion, from Novopolotsk, has long-term financial difficulties, with 17 Naftan players threatening to leave the club unless their salaries are paid in full (a backlog of unpaid wages exists). In fact, a few years ago, the team almost managed to beat venerable Belgian Ghent.
Gomel will be starting earlier, in the first qualifying round of the Europa League. Accordingly, its rival is the easiest to defeat: Vikingur from the Faroe Islands (ranked near the bottom in European football). Vikingur has reached the European Cup ten times and been knocked out badly every year. Moreover, in over twenty recent matches, they have only scored nine goals, while letting in 66.
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