Few outside Russia had heard of FC Anji Makhachkala until little over a year ago but for many it would be a surprise if they did not get past AZ Alkmaar to reach a UEFA group stage for the first time.
Anji welcome AZ for the home leg of their UEFA Europa League play-off on Thursday, having gone from provincial club to serious force in Russian football in a short space of time. They may not have the history or status of Manchester City FC and Paris Saint-Germain FC but their spending has been comparable; €70m in summer 2011 alone, and the likes of Roberto Carlos, Jucilei, Diego Tardelli, Mbark Boussoufa, Balasz Dszudszak, Yuri Zhirkov and Samuel Eto'o have been attracted.
On top of that, Russian league restrictions on foreign players – clubs used to have to field five nationals in league and cup games, now reduced to four – have meant that alongside Zhirkov, goalkeeper Vladimir Gabulov and his highly-rated younger midfielder brother Georgi have been recruited. For the third stage of building a winning squad, Anji set off to hunt for young Russian talent.
Full-back Arseni Logashov, midfielder Oleg Shatov as well as strikers Fedor Smolov and Serder Serderov are among the arrivals. They have already made a considerable impact, with Logashov winning his first cap for Russia against Ivory Coast earlier this month and Shatov equalising in the crucial 1-1 league draw against champions FC Zenit St Petersburg.
Anji were also keen to appoint local coaches, giving Yuri Krasnozhan a five-year deal in December. He soon stepped down and former Russia boss Guus Hiddink was appointed, guiding them to fifth place in only their sixth top-flight season. It was one spot below their best from 2000, the year before they reached the Russian Cup final.
That earned their only previous European campaign, when they lost 1-0 to Rangers FC in the UEFA Cup first round in a one-off tie held on neutral territory due to the security situation in Dagestan. Anji now train in Kratovo, near Moscow, and only fly into Makhachkala the day before home games though they intend to permanently base at facilities in the new 30,000-seater Anji Arena in the city.
"We work not only on improving the club's position, but also on popularising football in the region," club vice-president German Chistyakov said. "We have invested funds and hope to start developing our own players soon enough. Our mission is not only to promote and develop professional and grassroots sport, but also improve peace and stability in the region."
The club are transformed from their last European campaign, on and off the pitch, and have seen off Budapest Honvéd FC and Vitesse to reach the UEFA Europa League play-offs.
"Last season we started to get closer to the leaders of the league," Hiddink said. "We were in contention for second or third spot and ended up finishing fifth. This time, getting to the Europa League group stage is among our goals. This is going to be perfect for our young and growing club, for our international image."
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