Well-placed to make the third qualifying round of the UEFA Europa League for the first time, FC Koper are the surprise story in Slovenian football this season.
Following a 2-1 win against Neftçi PFK in Azerbaijan last week, Koper will set up a tie with Bursaspor or FC Chikhura Sachkhere if they avoid defeat at the ŠRC Bonifika Stadium on Thursday – a great achievement for a side who came into the competition with few expecting much of them.
"It was really a very tiring away match, but we were relaxed," said midfielder Domen Črnigoj. "Neftçi were the favourites. They underestimated us. Despite the long and gruelling journey to Azerbaijan and the high temperatures, we won. Of course, this win does not mean that we are already into the next round."
Having never made it through a tie in five previous UEFA campaigns, last season's Slovenian league runners-up had reason to be pessimistic again this term. However, a 9-0 aggregate defeat of Montenegro's FK Čelik Nikšić in the first qualifying round broke Koper's duck, with the success at Neftçi and a victory in their first domestic encounter of the season on Sunday leaving the Kanarčki (Canaries) with four wins from four competitive games.
That is a major step up for the club, who won their only Slovenian title in 2009/10, from up near the Italian border. The trail went cold in subsequent years, but the arrival in 2012 of Italian coach Rodolfo Vanoli and the emergence of the 18-year-old Črnigoj have been credited with lifting spirits.
"We did not have a settled team for couple of seasons," the Under-21 international explained. "Now the spine of the team is in place, so we know each other well on and off the pitch. The coach found each of us a proper place in the team. This season we have added a goalkeeper [Božidar Radošević] who is excellent and we are even more confident in defence."
With that lineup in place, Koper's horizons are expanding. The group stage remains a long way off, but – should they clear this next hurdle – Koper will earn the right to dream.
"Our aim was to reach the second qualifying round, but of course, after the victory in Baku, our appetite has grown," Črnigoj said. "The motivation is high. We just want to eliminate Neftçi. That would be Koper's biggest success in Europe."
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