Pärnu JK broke new ground for Estonian football last season by reaching the last 32 of the UEFA Women's Champions League. Repeating the feat this term, however, will perhaps be considered a greater achievement given the "big problems" facing coach Jüri Saar.
A year ago, Pärnu finished second in a qualifying round group hosted and won by Finland's PK-35 Vantaa, conceding only two goals as they became the first team from the Baltic nation to progress to the knockout stage of the world's premier women's club competition.
This campaign they will venture south to play in the heat of Montenegro, where they will take on hosts WFC Ekonomist, MTK Hungária FC and WFC Pomurje without the services of five key players, absences that will hit the squad hard.
"In the spring we had the same squad as last year, save for strengthening with one of the best forwards in Estonia, Ave Pajo," Saar told UEFA.com. "But then, in the first matches of the season, we were hit hard by injuries to Varje Tugim, Aljona Malets and Grete Ojala, while Heleri Saar is waiting for her baby to be born. So we've lost four defenders who won't be back this season and in May our leading forward Margarita Žernosekova suffered a double leg break."
Personnel issues are not Saar's sole concerns. "We know a little bit about our opponents. The Hungarians [MTK] played in the knockout phase last season, the Slovenians [Pomurje] won two qualifying matches and the Montenegrins, who host the mini-tournament, also looked pretty good. It will be extremely hard. It will be too hot there and southern European teams, who are fast and good at dribbling, are tough opponents for us. We have big problems, but we will do everything to get the desired result."
The club's part-time status means the planning and preparation to ensure that happens has been squeezed into the few sessions Saar has had with his team prior to take-off for Petrovac, venue for Pärnu's first game. Even then, Saar does not work with all his players at once. "We gather only in the evenings during the working week, but half the squad trains in Tallinn and half in Parnu," explained Saar, whose side have won all ten league matches this season regardless. "We meet as a group only at weekends before matches.”
The nine-time Estonian champions' European run last term ended with a record 27-0 aggregate defeat – the biggest in UEFA competition history – by a ruthless VfL Wolfsburg outfit who went on to retain the trophy. Looking back, Saar still retains a sense of context, describing the potentially morale-sapping affair as a "positive experience".
"We lost our form before the games against Wolfsburg and our domestic results confirm that," he added. "We enjoyed a lot of good moments in the qualifying round, where many things went our way. All our players were fit, we didn't need to travel far [to Finland] and the climate was fine."
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