By Berend Scholten and Pavel Gognidze
RSC Anderlecht will be hoping to begin the new season better than they ended the last when they face PFC Neftchi of Azerbaijan in the UEFA Champions League second qualifying round in Belgium.
A run of three draws in their final six matches saw their title challenge fall away with the finish in sight, relinquishing the crown to Club Brugge KV by three points. It was a familiar story for the side, whose 2004/05 Champions League campaign had followed a similar pattern – a victory in qualifying against SL Benfica raising hope, before exiting the group stage without picking up a point.
Those European results brought a new man to the helm, with Franky Vercauteren replacing Hugo Broos, and following a slow start the team responded to their new coach and began to close a 14-point gap to the summit. In the end they came up short but after five months in the job Vercauteren is determined his players will hit the ground running this term.
The Eerste Klasse outfit have brought in striker Serhat Akin from Turkish champions Fenerbahçe SK and he will make his Anderlecht debut tonight. Goalkeeper Silvio Proto will not be thrust straight into the side, however, after sealing his transfer from RAA Louviéroise on Saturday.
Proto was also too late to line up against fellow Champions League hopefuls LOSC Lille Métropole at the weekend, as a weakened Anderlecht lost 1-0. Vercauteren saw it as a useful exercise, the 48-year-old saying: "The result is not important, but some players did enough to push for a first-team place."
While Vercauteren considers his embarrassment of riches, Neftchi counterpart Agasalim Mirjavadov has a number of absentees. Zaur Tagizade and Olexandr Chertoganov serve suspensions, although Anderlecht midfielder Marius Mitu does likewise and the hosts also have striker Oleg Iachtchouk out with a knee injury.
Of greater concern to Mirjavadov, Slovenian striker Tomislav Mishura, who scored twice in the 4-1 aggregate victory over FH Hafnarfjördur in the first qualifying round, is a doubt so Branimir Subasic could be handed his first start. But it is the defence that could hold the key, with the Azerbaijani champions looking to remain in contention ahead of the return leg.
"The Belgian club have a rich history and are very strong," said captain Rashad F Sadygov. "A lot will depend on the first match: a good result in Belgium will make it easier for us."
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