"You never get a weak team in the UEFA Champions League, but you still always dream of getting easier opponents in the draw," smiled FK Ventspils sporting director Andrejs Butriks as he looked back to the second qualifying draw. "And here we got Malmö FF – Swedish champions, a solid and top-quality side with a rich history. Obviously, I had a reason to be disappointed."
However, with fans expecting little more than a brave defeat in last week's first leg, Jurģis Pučinskas's side defended stoutly to earn a goalless draw, and had the best chance of the game when Ahmed Abdultaofik hit a post early in the second half. "I was about to start cheering and it hit the post," the Nigerian said. "I went numb for a second. If I get another chance like that in Ventspils, I will definitely put it away. We will have chances. The main thing is to show the same dedication we did in Sweden."
They may not have won on the night, but Ventspils' draw has left the tie intriguingly tilted in their favour, with midfielder Jurijs Žigajevs not the only one to sense the parallels between this current young side and the team that caused a stir by overcoming FC BATE Borisov to reach the play-offs in 2009/10.
"They have that sparkle in their eyes, and that reminds me of myself five years ago," suggested the 28-year-old. "We really wanted to beat BATE and managed to do just that. I have that same feeling now. I really want to beat Malmö. I couldn't play in Sweden due to injury, but I saw how great the lads' fighting spirit was. That was just fantastic. I'm sure it will be the same at home."
Fans back in Latvia are certainly feeling positive about Ventspils' prospects. The club has claimed substantial scalps in the past, eliminating Brøndby IF and running Newcastle United FC close, as well as becoming the only Baltic club to feature in the UEFA Europa League group stage in 2009/10. Getting that far again would be a massive achievement, but for the moment, all of their attention is focused on unseating the 1978/79 European Champion Clubs' Cup finalists.
A crowd of 3,000 – huge by local standards – may be in attendance for Wednesday's decider with the Ventspils players hoping for an extra push from the stands. "We haven't had a sell-out for quite some time, but the match against Malmö would be a great time for that to happen," said defender Kaspars Dubra. "When the fans cheer you forward, your energy triples." Forward Eduards Tīdenbergs, 19, added: "The atmosphere in Malmö was fantastic. It would be really nice to have something like that in Ventspils too."
Pučinskas, meanwhile, is hoping for another full-blooded performance, mindful that just getting to this stage with the tie still in the balance is an achievement in itself. "It was us who had the best chance in Sweden," said the 41-year-old, an unused squad member in Latvia's UEFA EURO 2004 campaign. "Let's all hope that we can be proud after the return match in Latvia. That's what I was thinking of right after the first game. We have managed to keep the tie open, and that's very interesting."
©UEFA.com 1998-2011. All rights reserved.