Twelve months ago, KS Skënderbeu drew 0-0 away from home in their UEFA Champions League second qualifying round opener before winning the return in Albania. Having held FC BATE Borisov to a goalless draw last week, Mirel Josa's team have their fingers crossed history will repeat itself in Korca on Tuesday.
The similarities between the ties are not lost on captain Blendi Shkembi, who played in both games against Neftçi PFK at this juncture last season. "We were in the same situation last year and managed to get to the third round," the midfielder told UEFA.com. "We hope to do the same this time."
Skënderbeu, whose run in the 2013/14 competition was subsequently ended by FC Shakhter Karagandy, are competing at Europe's top table for the fourth successive campaign. A constant presence throughout, having returned to his local club in 2008, Shkembi has seen players come and go, with last term's 20-goal Albanian Super League top scorer Pero Pejić among four key departures this summer.
"It's very important to have good players in the side, but it's more important to have players that believe in the team ethos," said the 34-year-old, who has been encouraged by how new signings Tefik Osmani, Kristi Vangjeli, Fatjon Sefa, Gerhard Progni and Bernard Berisha have settled in. "That's what we have built here and will continue to do.
We are not a one-man team and no player is bigger than the club. We play as a team and we win as a team. Our objective is to progress to the next round. We have been here before and know what it takes."
Shkembi broke into his hometown side as a 16-year-old in 1995, learning his trade for five seasons until KS Teuta came calling. "It was tough – the only thing I knew was Skënderbeu and I wasn't prepared for a change," said Shkembi. "It was a challenge, but I was happy I went to a competitive team who were playing in Europe and fighting for domestic titles."
With Shkembi gone, Skënderbeu were relegated, not returning to the top flight until the start of the 2005/06 campaign. Their stay among the elite was brief, however, and the team spent the next two seasons yo-yoing between the divisions until their 14-times capped international − following spells in Greece, Croatia and Ukraine, as well as with Teuta and KF Partizani – aided Skënderbeu's ascension to the Kategoria Superiore in 2008/09 as second-tier runners-up.
"I wanted to help them − I felt it was time for me to go home and get them into the top league again," recalled Shkembi, who, after a loan stint at KS Besa in 2009/10, has led Skënderbeu to four successive league titles. "It has been great. We have built something special here. We will continue to build on our success and hopefully bring in more trophies."
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