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Yerevan rivals on UEFA Cup quest

FC Ararat Yerevan and FC Banants will represent Armenia in the UEFA Cup this season hoping to improve on their country's recent showings in Europe.

Nedelcho Matushev's Banants have a tough draw against Salzburg
Nedelcho Matushev's Banants have a tough draw against Salzburg ©90rope

Disappointing record
Banants, runners-up behind FC Pyunik in 2007, will be in the competition for the sixth consecutive season but only once have progressed beyond the initial qualifying round, when they defeated Georgia's FC Lokomotivi Tblisi three years ago, and on 15 and 29 July have among the hardest possible opposition in FC Salzburg. Meanwhile Ararat are back in the competition for the first time since 2001/02, and face Swiss opponents in AC Bellinzona. Indeed, no Armenian club has ever got beyond the second qualifying round.

While Ararat lead the way in the Armenian league, Banants are fourth having made some changes to their squad under coach Nedelcho Matushev, appointed in the winter. Striker Aram Hakobyan, midfielder Romeo Djenebyan and defender Andrej Cherevko have all left while Armenian international Karen Aleksanyan's contract was allowed to expire. Other players have been injured while although the likes of Aram Baregamyan, Arsen Balabekyan and Norajr Gjozalyan have potential, the club board is worried at the lack of experience ahead of the Salzburg tie. Club president Sargis Israelyan said: "Our opponents are really strong. Salzburg are one of the strongest sides at this stage of the tournament. However our players are ready to show their best. It's very important to be ready mentally. We need to show our team spirit. I hope that would bring us some luck."

Ararat form
Since losing twice to Hapoel Tel-Aviv FC on their last UEFA Cup entry, Ararat had been out of Europe until a UEFA Intertoto Cup first-round loss to FC Shakhtyor Soligorsk last year, when a 4-1 defeat in Belarus meant a 2-0 home win a week later was in vain. However, their fine form in 2008, when they started the season with seven straight victories, has increased optimism although they are looking to strength their attack and buy a new goalkeeper. However, Ararat's South American-infused team have been performing well, not least Brazilian Renato Moraes and compatriot Markos Pizzeli, who scored two minutes from time to secure a 2-1 Armenian Cup final win against Banants in May. The victory took the club into the UEFA Cup and a tie against European debutants Bellinzona.

Swiss challenge
Coach Varuzhan Sukiasyan said: "We don't know our opponents too well at the moment but we already know they will be playing in the Swiss top flight this season. Bellinzona are buying seven new players and that is an indication of their serious approach to the UEFA Cup. We have to be well prepared in order to have our say on the European stage after a rather long break."