Belarusian football's growing strength will be shown on Thursday when for the first time the nation has three clubs in the UEFA Europa League play-off round.
FC Dnepr Mogilev and FC Dinamo Minsk began their campaigns in the first and second qualifying round respectively, while 2008/09 UEFA Champions League contenders FC BATE Borisov may have exited that competition, but they are one tie away from a second straight UEFA Europa League group stage appearance. Only FC Torpedo Zhodino were unable to make it, eliminated 3-2 on aggregate by OFK Beograd, but the other three are preparing for high-profile first legs.
Dnepr's first European campaign in a decade began on 1 July with a last-gasp equaliser at KF Laçi of Albania, prior to a 7-1 second-leg victory. Andrei Skorobogatko's side then knocked out Stabæk Fotball on away goals and saw off FC Baník Ostrava 3-1 on aggregate, but face their greatest challenge yet at Villarreal CF.
Skorobogatko said: "
Most of our players have never played in such an important game and it is hard to say when they will have another chance to test themselves at this level. Hopefully we will have a packed stadium at home and this should help us to perform well against Villarreal. But first we have to withstand the away leg. We have nothing to lose following the wins against Stabæk and Baník."
Dinamo Minsk reached the quarter-finals of all three major UEFA club competitions in the 1980s, and now Club Brugge KV stand in their way. Vladimir Golmak's side did it the hard way in the third qualifying round against Maccabi Haifa FC, losing the away leg 1-0 and only clinching a 3-1 win in the return with Anton Putilo's last-gasp free-kick.
It will be even tougher in Belgium on Thursday. "Brugge are a strong European club with a huge history," said Golmak. "They have won the league 13 times and are the only Belgian club to have played in the European Cup final. That says a lot. They do not have world-class names, but their squad is full of quality players."
BATE's dream of another UEFA Champions League appearance may have been dashed by FC København, but they are on course for a fifth straight Belarusian title and - having outsted PFC Litex Lovech at this stage last season - have high hopes as CS Marítimo make the long trip from Madeira.
We always have many gifted players in our country," said BATE president Anatoliy Kapsky. "Now it has started to yield results on the international club stage. What is more, our league has become more competitive since it was reduced [for this season] from 14 clubs to 12."
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