An underwhelming start to the domestic season has prompted FC Nordsjælland boss Kasper Hjulmand to quell expectations ahead of Tuesday's UEFA Champions League third qualifying round opener against FC Zenit.
After winning the Danish Super League title for the first time in 2012, the Farum outfit pitted their wits against the continent's elite in the group stage of Europe's premier club competition last term. Despite accruing just one point from an uncompromising section containing then holders Chelsea FC, Juventus and FC Shakhtar Donetsk, they bowed out with their pride firmly intact.
Hjulmand's charges have since fallen on harder times, relinquishing their league crown to FC København after finishing the 2012/13 campaign as runners-up. Meanwhile, defensive frailties – not helped by the loss of colossal centre-back Jores Okore to Aston Villa FC – triggered an opening day 4-0 reverse at Esbjerg fB. A subsequent 1-1 home draw with Viborg FF did little to take the heat off a batch of new players still finding their feet.
"We are not as strong as we want to be at the moment. It will take a lot of time for the players to adapt to the system. This is a bonus match for us and we're not expecting to progress," explained Hjulmand, who is nonetheless determined to savour the occasion. "We are definitely underdogs and therefore have nothing to lose. Twelve months of hard work has rewarded us with two big games and we must enjoy it."
If Hjulmand does harbour a glimmer of hope, it lies in his ability to galvanise a squad that has been depleted by the loss of eight first-team members since their maiden title triumph. "We have to be united as a team to beat Zenit. Player-by-player, they are much better than us, but football is a fantastic game where a collective effort can sometimes pull you through," said the 41-year-old.
"First of all, we need to get through the first half without conceding," added captain Nicolai Stokholm, scorer of the club's sole league goal so far this term. "We want to go into the second leg in Russia with something to play for – we don't want anything to be decided before then.
"A draw would be a great result. I believe there is a small chance. I know we can play at a higher level than we have done so far this season and Zenit have also been struggling in Russia."
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