FC Shirak coach Vardan Bichakhchyan has warned his players not to let their guards down as the Armenian title holders prepare to get the 2013/14 UEFA Champions League under way.
Shirak will welcome Sammarinese side SP Tre Penne to the Gyumri City Stadium on Tuesday afternoon, the first of 213 games in a competition that culminates in Lisbon on 24 May. At the tenth time of asking Shirak won their first tie in UEFA competition last season, edging out FK Rudar Pljevlja 2-1 on aggregate to reach the second qualifying round of the UEFA Europa League.
They are expected to repeat the feat against Tre Penne, but Bichakhchyan is taking nothing for granted. "We will not be thinking about who the favourites are because we know nothing about them," he said. "We might need to do some scouting during the game itself."
Tre Penne may know a little more about Shirak and their revival since former player Bichakhchyan took the reins two years ago. He led them to their maiden Armenian Cup in his first season and while they lost the final last term, there was ample consolation in the form of a fourth championship at the end of a marathon 42-game transitional campaign. Armenia have switched to a winter league, eyeing European gains.
There was some 12 months ago and they covet more this, with a mouth-watering tie against FK Partizan the prize for beating Tre Penne. Bichakhchyan says the Belgrade giants would be "very strong opponents", but refuses to be drawn into more lengthy ruminations: his focus is on Tre Penne. "The second qualifying round? We need to get past the first one for starters. Our players must not underestimate them; we must keep our concentration and focus."
Meanwhile, Tre Penne arrived in Armenia in the early hours of Sunday and coach Marco Protti is keen to let his players acclimatise to the conditions. "We'll try to defend strongly to avoid them pushing us back, but we will have an eye on the counterattack," he said. "The weather is really warm and this will make things more difficult for us, because they will play at full speed."
The Sammarinese club are likely to be without central defender Vladimir Mikhaylovskiy, who is suffering from a virus, and will hand a debut to new signing and goalkeeper Gianmarco Pazzini in place of Federico Valentini.
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