Rangers FC stand between PFC CSKA Moskva coach Valeri Gazzaev and the group stage.
By Pavle Gognidze
On 7 August, one of Russia's top coaches, Valeri Gazzaev, celebrated his 50th birthday. The party was a private affair. All that we know is that his 50th birthday was a considerably less sombre affair than his 49th.
For last season, his birthday came the day after a 1-1 draw against Macedonian minnows FK Vardar completed a 3-2 aggregate defeat for Gazzaev's PFC CSKA Moskva side which saw them bow out of the UEFA Champions League in the second qualifying round.
This season, CSKA managed to progress to the third qualifying round following a 2-0 aggregate win against Azerbaijani champions PFC Neftchi. Now only Scotland's Rangers FC stand between Gazzaev and his ultimate goal - the group stage.
Last year was a strange one for Gazzaev. Though CSKA went on to win their first title since Russian independence after losing against Vardar, Gazzaev unexpectedly resigned at the end of the season, allowing Portuguese coach Artur Jorge to take charge.
However, Jorge was to last for just a few months before CSKA chairman Eugeni Giner brought Gazzaev back. The coach had been taking a break from football. "I found out that there are interesting things aside from football," he said. "I was involved in business and happily spent eight months without football."
It was a welcome rest for the moustachioed and highly emotional coach who, along with Oleg Romantsev, is one of only two Russian coaches to have won more than one post-independence title. He guided FC Alania Vladikavkaz to the crown in 1995 and with CSKA in 2003.
However, while domestic success has been relatively easy to come by, European glory has eluded Gazzaev. Indeed, his efforts in European competitions have often ended in humiliation - a tradition that began when his FC Dinamo Moskva side lost 6-0 at home against Eintracht Frankfurt in a UEFA Cup game on 14 September 1993. It remains the heaviest defeat in the history of Soviet and Russian clubs in Europe.
Three years later, it was Rangers - CSKA's opponents tonight - that administered the coup de grâce. Having lost 3-1 in Scotland, Alania went down 7-2 at home to complete a 10-3 aggregate defeat. Under Gazzaev, Alania also lost 4-0 to RSC Anderlecht and 3-0 to MTK Hungária FC.
None the less, as Rangers await again, Gazzaev has the security of knowing that, in midfield player Rolan Gusev, he has a player who knows how to score against the Scots. Gusev scored in both legs of a 7-2 aggregate defeat for Dinamo against Rangers in the 2001/02 UEFA Cup, and is in upbeat mood. "I think we have a fair chance of getting through this game and into the next phase of the competition," he said.
Adding to the positive mood is Brazilian striker Vágner Love, newly arrived from SE Palmeiras, who scored on his CSKA debut against Neftchi. "We can win if we play like we can do," he said. "CSKA are a good team and if we can keep on improving then more titles will follow."
That is certainly what Giner is hoping for. "I want us to get more support and attention in Russia because we are the country's only representative in the Champions League," he said. "Next up is a tough game against Rangers and I just hope we can come through it." Such a win would be a priceless late birthday gift for Gazzaev.
Additional reporting by Claire Nash and Eduard Nisenboim