Under-21 international Aleksandr Degterev is keen to silence the "chatter" surrounding his club's bright start in Belarus and concentrate on the serious business of winning trophies with FC Naftan Novopolotsk.
First promoted to the Vysshaya Liga in time for the 1996 campaign, Naftan have rarely commanded much attention, finishing seventh in the last three seasons. However, the northerners are refusing to live up to their uninspiring billing this term, and having already earned a place in the Belarus Cup final – twice beating local titans FC BATE Borisov in the semis – Europe is beckoning.
Fourth in the table, they may already be losing sight of runaway leaders BATE after eight league games, but just one point separates them from second-placed FC Dinamo Minsk. Moreover, 41-year-old coach Igor Kovalevich has plenty of class in his side: five U21 internationals as well as three individuals who have statistics no one playing in Belarus can match.
Midfielder Maksim Razumov boasts a record 361 Belarussian league appearances, Valeri Stripeikis is the nation's most prolific active scorer with 171 goals while Vitali Volodenkov boasts a similar record for assists with 86. Then there are U21 stars like forward Dmitri Komarovski, goalkeeper Anton Kovalevski, midfielders Degterev and Filip Rudik and defender Dmitri Verkhovtsov.
The latter pair are already senior internationals, and Kovalevich said: "People are asking after Verhovtsov, Komarovski and Rudik and if we get good offers and both the players and the club agree on them, why should we not accept? We have several players who can play in pretty much every position. I'm sure the ones who are playing a supporting role can step up into the first eleven."
Undeterred by the interest in his players, Kovalevich still feels Naftan have every chance of ending the year with a trophy to show for their efforts."We prepared well for the season, are in good physical condition and have showed everybody in the quarter and semi-finals of the cup what we can do," he said. "It already looks like fewer than six sides will fight for the league trophy. We must avoid getting lost in mid-table and play on a par with the favourites."
'Chatter and speculation'
Kovalevich does not lack confidence in his side's ability, but Degterev – who missed much of last season through injury – is not about to speculate on what Naftan might achieve. "You have to play every game to win," he said. "Forget this chatter and speculation; we will see what happens in the autumn. We want to start to collect trophies since I have never won one at senior level."
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