Thursday's visit of FC Internazionale Milano may mark Neftçi PFK's most significant fixture in recent years yet defender Mahir Shukurov is "thinking only about victory".
The Azerbaijani side opened Group H with a creditable goalless draw with FK Partizan in Serbia and, if the visit of a team who were European champions in 2010 presents a sizeable challenge, Shukurov is nonetheless confident they can hold their own. "Inter are a club that need no introductions," the 29-year-old told UEFA.com, "whereas Azerbaijani football is known only for Neftçi, and few people believed we would reach the Europa League group stage."
Neftçi reacted strongly to losing to Hapoel Kiryat Shmona FC in the UEFA Champions League third qualifying round by beating Cyprus's APOEL FC 4-2 on aggregate in the UEFA Europa League play-offs. Shukurov says there is no shortage of belief in Boyukagha Hajiyev's squad. "After the Champions League exit many stopped believing, but we overcame a strong club like APOEL and made it," he said. "History is history, but today you can win respect through results in Europe. I'm happy Neftçi have become the first Azeri side to reach the group stage."
After leaving Neftçi in 2007, the defender had spells at İnter Bakı PİK, Xäzär Länkäran FK, Olimpik-Şüvälan PFK, FC Anji Makhachkala in Russia and Qäbälä FK before rejoining the Baku outfit this summer. Given their European exploits so far, he has no regrets – and says his national-team experience with Azerbaijan, for whom he has 58 caps, may also prove useful against Internazionale.
"Almost all our players have vast experience," Shukurov said. "
Just recently I was marking Cristiano Ronaldo on international duty. Did I close him down? Is that even possible? Ronaldo and Lionel Messi are two of the best players in the world, I just tried to do what I could.
"Neftçi's foreign players also have big experience, including international caps," he added. "I don't believe Inter will underestimate us. We will try to play our style of football and get a famous victory. Yes, we're looking to win and that's not just me boasting. Everyone is thinking only about victory."
Neftçi are famed for their youth academy, whose latest crop of graduates face a stern test against Andrea Stramaccioni's Inter which could have long-term consequences. "We have interesting young players," Shukurov said. "This match will be watched by a much bigger audience than normal and a good performance could make Italian scouts interested.
"Any player will benefit from going abroad. For me, playing at Anji provided a lot of positives. Because of the Russian league I know [Group H opponents] Rubin Kazan quite well and I'm sure our games with them will be exciting too."
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