Aalesunds FK coach Kjetil Rekdal believes his team's physical strength can help them defend a 2-1 UEFA Europa League play-off lead against AZ Alkmaar and achieve a feat he describes as "sensational".
A goal in each half by Michael Barrantes in last week's first leg has edged the tie in favour of Rekdal's men − and should they finish the job in the Netherlands, Aalesund, who have just nine matches in UEFA competition to their name, will have have made significant ground. In an impressive sequence of qualifying results, Welsh side Neath FC, Ferencvárosi TC of Hungary and Sweden's IF Elfsborg have all been swept aside.
The Norwegian outfit's rise to prominence can be traced back to 1997, when 17-year-old full-back John Arne Riise moved to AS Monaco FC in a €4.6m deal that gave the club the financial muscle to compete at the highest level domestically. Promotion to the top flight arrived in 2002, but it was not until 2007 that AaFK managed to stay up and compete with the big guns.
Since then, they have not looked back, and roared on by passionate support at their 10,778-capacity stadium, the club won its first trophy − the 2009 Norwegian Cup − on penalties against local rivals Molde FK. Although their highest all-time finish of fourth place last season fell short of securing European participation, that right was afforded them via the UEFA Respect Fair Play ranking.
They have taken the opportunity with both hands and if their domestic form has been mixed following the departures of goalkeeper Anders Lindegaard (Manchester United FC), striker Tor Hogne Aarøy (JEF United), midfielder Khari Stephenson (San Jose Earthquakes) and Jonathan Parr (Crystal Palace FC), hope springs eternal in the UEFA Europa League.
Nonetheless, Rekdal is under no illusions about the task that awaits his side. "
To beat Alkmaar in front of our own fans was quite an achievement, but if we win over the two legs it would be sensational," said the 42-year-old. "They are a very good team, but we are stronger physically than them and we have an advantage when it comes to dead-ball situations."
Rekdal will also be hoping for another inspired performance from Costa Rican international midfielder Barrantes − a scorer of five goals in six European matches this season − while promising goalkeeper Sten Grytebust and central defender Daniel Arnefjord will also be key to a positive result.
Due to a family bereavement, Rekdal missed his team's moment in the sun, but he is no stranger to the big occasion. The former Hertha BSC Berlin midfielder made his name scoring the winning goal against Brazil at the 1998 FIFA World Cup − perhaps Norwegian football's finest hour. If anyone can secure Aalesund's place in the UEFA Europa League group stage, surely he can.
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