Having "earned other teams' respect" in last season's UEFA Champions League, coach Viktor Goncharenko hopes FC BATE Borisov can impress in the UEFA Europa League too, starting against SL Benfica tonight.
Bridge too far
A repeat of last year's Herculean feat in getting to the UEFA Champions League group stage proved beyond the Belarussian champions this term, as they were eliminated by FK Ventspils in the third qualifying round. That defeat, however, was the prelude to another fine achievement. The club formed just 13 years ago – with a team of average age 23.7 and a coach who recently turned 32 – reached the group phase of the new UEFA Europa League, beating Bulgarian side PFC Litex Lovech 4-1 on aggregate in the play-offs.
Having played at Real Madrid CF, Juventus and FC Zenit St. Petersburg in the élite competition last season, BATE will hardly be intimidated by the atmosphere at the Estádio da Luz in Lisbon. "I am proud of my boys," said Goncharenko, who joined the Borisov club as a 19-year-old and moved into coaching after injury ended his playing career at 25. "I can see the good in them because I have been a pro myself.
"The mentality of this generation of players cannot be compared with the BATE of ten years ago," added the coach, who took sole charge in November 2007. "At the time we had neither mental strength nor experience. Now the lads are confident in themselves. We have made teams respect us, and you see that from how they prepare for games against BATE."
Group I rivals Benfica, Everton FC and AEK Athens FC are daunting opponents for any European side, yet Goncharenko is determined to target a top-two finish. "We did not get the easiest of groups," he said. "We have a good team, though, with decent players and international experience. That will help us, even in late autumn after the Belarussian season ends."
Bidding for a sixth successive Belarussian title, BATE – who pride themselves on developing local talent such as midfielders Pavel Nekhaychik and Igor Stasevich, and striker Maksim Skavysh – will look to do themselves justice. "We will do our best not to let the fans down," said owner Anatoli Kapski. "We want to play good football in every game and try to win. We are not newcomers and we want results.
"Last year was our first season in Europe and it came as a surprise," Kapski continued. "The magnitude of the situation didn't sink in. Now it is a different story. The Europa League is not the Champions League, but it is a big tournament and a hard school. We have overcome problems, disappointments and pressure to get here. Now we feel even more excited than last year. It's an emotion that is hard to describe."
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