FC Sheriff, champions of Moldova for the last seven seasons, are dreaming of ending a run of six second qualifying round exits when they welcome Beşiktaş JK.
No team in Europe are on a longer run of consecutive league titles than FC Sheriff, champions of Moldova for the last seven seasons. However, each of their six UEFA Champions League appearances have finished in the second qualifying round - a run which will only end if they can overcome a 1-0 deficit at home to Beşiktaş JK tonight.
Group stage dream
There is certainly plenty of motivation for Sheriff, who were only pipped on away goals by FC Spartak Moskva 12 months ago. The winners will meet Swiss champions FC Zürich for a place in the group stage, beatable opponents according to the Moldovan press. "Chances like this to make it to the group stage do not arise too often," wrote one newspaper. And, as a recent poll on the club's website revealed that 80 per cent of supporters would rather play in the group stage than win the Moldovan league, the Tiraspol outfit are daring to dream.
Preparations have been long in the making. The Sheriff Stadium is a 14,300-seater arena and when opening the complex in 2002, Gheorghe Hagi said: "You already have a stadium for Champions League games. Now you have to create the team." To that end, a cosmopolitan squad from ten different nations has been assembled, ranging from Ukrainians and Romanians to players from Argentina, Brazil, Togo and Burkina Faso. Sheriff have a good reputation for developing talents, and recent sales have included Razvan Cocis to FC Lokomotiv Moskva, Alexandru Epureanu to FC Moskva, Serguei Dadu to FC Midtjylland and Razak Omotoyossi to Helsingborgs IF.
Kept at bay
Indeed, although Beşiktaş fielded new signings Rüstü Reçber, Rodrigo Tello, Mehmet Yozgatlı and Edouard Cissé last week in Istanbul, Sheriff were able to keep them at bay for 73 minutes and Aleksei Kuchuk came close to grabbing a late away goal. But the Moldovan title-holders are by tradition reticent before big games, and captain Vaja Tarkhnishvili said: "Beşiktaş are the club with the richer history and better team. The Turkish club are more than 100 years old, while we are only ten, but everything is equal on the pitch." Although most of the sell-out crowd will be behind Sheriff, there are plenty of ex-pats in Moldova backing the visitors - indeed there is a club sponsored by Turkish businessmen in the second division named Beşiktaş.