FC MTZ-RIPO Minsk may be relative newcomers in Europe but coach Yuri Puntus is looking to "qualify for the group stage" as they start their UEFA Cup campaign.
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FC MTZ-RIPO Minsk may be relative newcomers in Europe, but coach Yuri Puntus is looking to "qualify for the group stage" as they start their UEFA Cup campaign.
The one-time tractor factory team made their debut in the Belarussian top flight in 2004, surviving a relegation play-off and winning the cup the following season to make their European debut in the 2005/06 UEFA Cup. They overcame Hungary's Ferencvárosi TC in the first qualifying round before bowing out to FK Teplice of the Czech Republic at the next stage, returning to UEFA competition in the 2006 UEFA Intertoto Cup.
After a one-season absence from Europe, MTZ-RIPO are back again having won the Belarus Cup for a second time, and the 47-year-old Puntus – in charge again following a spell as Belarus coach – is looking forward to their tie against Slovakia's MŠK Žilina. "It's a pity we play the first leg at home as having the return leg at home is always an advantage," said the coach. "Still our goal remains the same; to qualify for the group stage. It's won't be easy, but we will do our best."
MTZ-RIPO, Lithuania's FBK Kaunas and Scotland's Heart of Midlothian FC are bound together by their links to Russian-Lithuanian businessman Vladimir Romanov, and he and Puntus have big plans for MTZ-RIPO. "We are satisfied with our draw," Puntus said. "I didn't really care about our opponents as it was known from the start that we would rather face a strong team. Maybe, somewhere deep in my mind, I wanted to play against AC Bellinzona, who were not in the Switzerland's top flight last season."
Puntus thinks his side have a "50-50 chance" against Žilina, though midfielder Oleg Strakhanovich admits the Slovakian side are something of an unknown quantity. "Žilina are probably a good team, although I don't know much about them," he said. "We don't have to be afraid anyway. We want to qualify for the group stage, so we have to get past the first qualifying round in order to achieve our goal."
They certainly have the firepower to do that although a leaky defence should ensure an exciting tie. After 13 league games this season, MTZ-RIPO are second in Belarus with 26 points with a phenomenal average of more than four goals being scored in their games – they have scored 35 and conceded 21. Star players Strakhanovich, Aleksandr Sulima and Viacheslav Hleb are ready for their next challenge though the latter – the brother of Arsenal FC midfielder Aleksandr Hleb – may soon join Dutch side Roda JC.