FC Shakhtyor Soligorsk have raised huge expectations in their native Belarus after surging through to the UEFA Europa League play-offs. The Pitmen swept aside SV Zulte Waregem 7-4 in the third qualifying round to set up a mouth-watering tie against PSV Eindhoven, with the Dutch giants now standing between them and a maiden berth in the group stage.
"There is no doubt that PSV are favourites, but everything will be decided on the pitch," says coach Sergei Borovski. "Whoever prepares best will go through." As the former USSR defender readies his troops for Thursday's opening leg, UEFA.com runs the rule over the Soligorsk side.
First founded in 1961, Shakhtyor were relative minnows when the Belarusian championship was launched in 1992 following independence, and they finished bottom of the league five years later. Indeed, it took the appointment of Ivan Shchekin to begin a change in fortunes, which continued when his successor Yuri Vergeichik led the club to the title in 2005.
Shakhtyor have not repeated that triumph since, but they have consistently rivalled local powerhouse FC BATE Borisov, finishing runners-up for the last four seasons. In Europe, meanwhile, they are about to appear in the play-off of a major UEFA competition for the first time.
Capped 21 times by the USSR, Borovski took charge of Shakhtyor last winter. As a player, he made his name with his one and only club, FC Dinamo Minsk, where he contested 400 league matches between 1974 and 1987, winning the Soviet Top League in 1982.
Since moving into coaching, he has overseen a number of sides from Belarus and further afield, including Lithuanian outfit FBK Kaunas, and has twice held the reins of the Belarusian national team. During his first stint, from 1994 to 1996, Belarus recorded a famous victory against a Netherlands side coached by Guus Hiddink and featuring a number of players fresh from winning the 1995 UEFA Champions League final with AFC Ajax.
Shakhtyor boast a balanced squad with experienced leaders in every department. Estonia's Artur Kotenko is the undisputed first-choice goalkeeper, while the defence is marshalled by captain Aleksandr Yurevich, who joined from BATE this summer. Elsewhere, Artem Stargorodsky and Andrei Leonchik are the key figures in midfield, though Sergei Balanovich joined FC Amkar Perm at the weekend, with Dmitri Osipenko and Nikolai Yanush carrying the main thrust up front.
The Pitmen prefer a fast, attacking game with an accent on accurate passing, though much of their success also depends on their capable defence. Borovski is known for his ability to prepare his sides for specific games and opponents, which means that Shakhtyor do not have a set formation. For example, they are comfortable with either three defenders at the back or four, as they have already demonstrated in Europe this term, operating with a 3-4-2-1 set-up in the first leg against Zulte Waregem and 4-2-3-1 in the decider.
Borovski is looking forward to tackling PSV after identifying the Dutch giants as the club he most hoped to face in the play-offs. "I like the philosophy of Dutch football," he said. "It's close to my own in its nature, and it's also close to Belgian football. We will analyse PSV's strengths and weaknesses and then we'll decide how we are going to prepare. In that way, we'll know how we need to defend and how to play on the break."
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