FC Twente stunned Dutch football by clinching their first Eredivisie title last season and are now setting their sights on Europe's elite: holders FC Internazionale Milano have been warned.
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For FC Twente fans the dream rolls on. After winning the Eredivisie title for the first time in their 45-year history last term, the Enschede club are bracing themselves for their UEFA Champions League debut on 14 September. As if the occasion were not special enough, Michel Preud'homme's tyros kick off their campaign with a mouth-watering home match against defending champions FC Internazionale Milano.
On paper at least, Twente versus Inter looks a mismatch. Peter Wekking, a journalist from Voetbal International magazine, describes the Group A opener as "the sun against the moon", "water against fire". He says: "It's impossible to compare the two. Inter are an international powerhouse, and Twente aren't even a powerhouse in the Netherlands. They've won the title once."
Nobody at Twente will be throwing in the towel, however. They have been upsetting the odds on a regular basis of late and have no intention of quietly returning to the backwaters of the Dutch game. Defender Wout Brama insists Twente can upset Rafael Benitez's much-vaunted team.
"I'm looking ahead with a lot of excitement," the club's 24-year-old youth product told UEFA.com. "It'll be hard but we have a chance. We always create chances at home. The most important thing is not to approach this match like it's a little bonus. It's the UEFA Champions League and we're the Dutch champions. We have to show that."
Brama's steely determination typifies the modern Twente approach. UEFA Cup finalists in 1975 and Dutch Cup winners two years later, they were in danger of disappearing off the radar during the next two turbulent decades. After suffering relegation in 1983, Twente became plagued by financial problems.
Yet the arrival of businessman Joop Munsterman in 2004 has sparked a stunning turnaround in fortunes. 'De Tukkers' finished seventh in 2005/06, then fourth and second in the following campaigns under Fred Rutten. Steve McClaren took over and Twente finished runners-up again in 2009, then pipped AFC Ajax to the league crown in a thrilling finale this spring.
Despite the Amsterdam giants embarking on a 14-match winning streak, Twente held their nerve, clinching the victory they needed at NAC Breda on the final day. "When the final whistle went it was like an explosion of emotions," recalled Brama, who has been present throughout the meteoric rise.
"I'm from this area so for me it was maybe a bit more special and intense. It was overwhelming." The Dutch international now plans to enjoy the prize of UEFA Champions League football. "We watched the draw together and when I saw the group we were in I realised it would be a real challenge to go through," he said.
McClaren switched to VfL Wolfsburg in the summer, leaving Preud'homme with the difficult task of improving on last season. The former Belgium goalkeeper hopes the excitement of the European games ensures the feel-good factor remains. "It's something new for FC Twente and for the fans," Preud'homme told UEFA.com. "This is the continuation of the dream they had at the end of last season. We're here now and we'll try to make the best of it."
One of the keys to Twente's surge has been the ability of the chairman, Munstermaan, to attract top-class coaches. After Rutten and McClaren, Preud'homme has been appointed on the back of winning the title with R. Standard de Liège in 2008 and the Belgian Cup with KAA Gent last year. The 51-year-old knows he will need to be at his inspirational best to take Twente through a section that also includes SV Werder Bremen and Tottenham Hotspur FC.
"We could have been in a better position," reflected Preud'homme. "We have the European champions, a German team that are always difficult to play and, maybe worst of all, an English team from the third pot. Tottenham might not be Manchester United or Chelsea, but the difference isn't that great."
Preud'homme believes Twente will need to pick up points at home to stay in contention, and hopes to catch Inter cold. "It's good to start at home to Inter," he said. "We have everything to win and nothing to lose.
"Inter can dictate games when they need to, but they can also let the other team play. They had a great coach who has left, but another great coach has come and the team has stayed together. Their strength is unchanged." Should Twente pull off another shock, their fans really will be pinching themselves.
UEFA.com will be following FC Twente's progress in the UEFA Champions League this season in a series of video features, starting this week with Episode 1, 'The FC Twente story: The adventure begins'.