A return to the UEFA Champions League group stage is just two matches away for FC Spartak Moskva and Fenerbahçe SK, and both coaches are predicting nothing less than a close battle in their play-off contest.
Spartak last tasted the delights of Europe's top table two seasons ago. Determined to make sure the absence is just a temporary one, the club installed Unai Emery as coach this summer. They delved into the transfer market too, bringing in the likes of international midfielders Kim Källström and Romulo.
Ahead of the their home play-off first leg, Emery says the prize his team are chasing is incentive enough for the players. "All footballers want to take part in the most prestigious competitions," he said, "and the Champions League is the most prestigious of them all."
Those players have to get there first, though, and Fenerbahçe are not a side to either give in, or be taken lightly, according to the Spaniard. "We will fight until the end and so will they," added Emery, who dismissed claims his side are the better bet to progress. "I don't think it's reasonable to pronounce the favourites just now. It will be clear during the match who are the stronger team, but it is also obvious that our opposition are top-class."
Last season's Russian Premier-Liga runners-up will be without the injured Källström and also have some key defenders missing, including Sergei Parshivlyuk and Kirill Kombarov. Aiden McGeady is likely to return after being suspended for Saturday's 2-1 win against FC Rubin Kazan, and despite winning four games out of five in the league this term, Emery insists "our displays have left something to be desired".
Fenerbahçe coach Aykut Kocaman is also none too happy with how his team have performed in the early part of the season. The club are seeking a group stage campaign for the first time since 2008/09, with Kocaman saying "we need to prove we can get back to that level".
"In our first Champions League game against Vaslui [in the third qualifying round], we really did not perform very well," the 47-year-old said. "Afterwards I told the players that they need to constantly improve if we're to become a serious force."
A 1-1 draw against promoted Elazığspor on the opening day of the Süper Lig season has done little to dispel those doubts, but while Kocaman has called Spartak the "nominal favourites", he believes the team who "can impose their game on their opponents" will have the edge.
He may have an advantage in this department, with midfielder Mehmet Topal having worked with Emery for two seasons at Valencia CF. Mehmet said: "Emery is a very motivated coach who taught me well. I spoke to him two days ago and we agreed this will be a very interesting match."
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