Bottom of the table in Russia, having lost most of their star players last summer, FC Anji Makhachkala have surprised many by reaching the UEFA Europa League round of 16, and defender Andrei Eschenko hopes there are more shocks to come yet.
Gadzhi Gadzhiev's side scrambled through a group dominated by Tottenham Hotspur FC, but looked to have met their match in the round of 32 only to follow up a 0-0 home draw against KRC Genk with a 2-0 win in Belgium. A 1-0 loss to AZ Alkmaar in the Netherlands last week has given Dick Advocaat's side hope of avenging a 6-0 aggregate defeat by Anji in last season's play-offs, but Eschenko knows there is plenty of life in the Dagestan team yet.
"We were unlucky in the Netherlands," said Eschenko as he looked ahead to Thursday's return fixture at Anji's European base in Ramenskoye. "AZ didn't do anything special and scored from the penalty spot. We had four or five great chances – we could have repeated the scoreline from when we last visited two years ago [when Anji beat AZ 5-0 in Alkmaar]. If we take our chances in the next leg, we will qualify. In the end, we didn't lose 5-0, so you always have a chance."
Like fellow round of 16 contenders Real Betis Balompié, Anji's season has been one of misery in their domestic league and significant success in Europe. "We were lucky with the draw from the beginning, both opponent-wise and schedule-wise," said Eschenko. "Of course, we didn't want to miss an opportunity to play in Europe and make our fans happy. Now us and Zenit are the only Russian clubs left in Europe."
Fourteen places and 30 points separate the two European contenders in the Russian Premier-Liga, where Eschenko knows Anji have found life difficult – they only secured their first win of the season, 1-0 against FC Rubin Kazan, on 9 March. "Domestic matches are not like European ones," said Eschenko. "Teams sit back and defend deep in Russia and concentrate on counterattacks. In Europe, teams play more attacking football and try to win regardless of their opponents."
That victory against Rubin has brought some hope for Anji, who brought in Olexandr Aliyev, forward Fedor Smolov and former FC Zenit striker Aleksandr Bukharov over the winter to aid their bid for league survival. "They are very strong, they have European experience and a desire to play," said 30-year-old left-back Eschenko, capped nine times by Russia. "Our coach Gadzhi Gadzhiev is also a very good psychologist. He has his own way of approaching every situation."
The manager's main aim is certainly top-flight safety, but he will struggle to temper his players' enthusiasm for the UEFA Europa League. "We want to go as far as possible," said Eschenko. "The league is our priority, but that doesn't mean Europe is not important. We always want to play there."
©UEFA.com 1998-2011. All rights reserved.