Part of the FC Lokomotiv Moskva side that pipped AEK Athens FC to the UEFA Cup Winners' Cup semi-finals, Igor Cherevchenko spoke to UEFA.com as they prepare to meet again.
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Ask FC Lokomotiv Moskva fans and most will tell you the last-gasp quarter-final triumph over AEK Athens FC in the 1997/98 UEFA Cup Winners' Cup is the stand-out moment in their European history. Seconds from an away-goals defeat, Lokomotiv snatched victory courtesy of Igor Chugainov's added-time winner.
On Thursday, 13 years and seven months on, Lokomotiv meet the Greek side for the first time since, in UEFA Europa League Group L. It is an emotional affair for Igor Cherevchenko, now on the club's coaching staff, and captain Dmitri Loskov, who both played in that dramatic last-eight fixture.
"The tie started in Athens and the away leg was extremely difficult," Cherevchenko told UEFA.com. "With the fans behind them the hosts dominated the game, while we had to defend in numbers − though it had been our intention to set out our stall to defend. Ruslan Nigmatullin made a couple of crucial saves on his debut and, as a result, we achieved our aim of a goalless draw. Moreover, AEK finished with nine men."
The second leg took place in the Russian capital a fortnight later, and Lokomotiv were keen to emulate rivals FC Spartak Moskva, who had confirmed their place in the UEFA Cup semi-finals two days earlier. "This time we had mad support from the Russian fans," said Cherevchenko. "Zhenya [Evgeni] Kharlachev put us before the hour, but AEK equalised from the penalty spot. To be honest I thought Nigmatullin would save it, but that wasn't the case. However, more interesting things still lay ahead.
"We went all-out attack because we had nothing to lose," said 37-year-old. "AEK wasted a golden opportunity on the counterattacks, and Sergei Gurenko cleared off the line. We had two goals disallowed ourselves, but Igor Chugainov scored the winner in the second minute of added time. Half the fans had already left the stadium, but the roar of the other half brought them back.
"We won by the skin of our teeth. The Russian Railways board congratulated us in the changing room and then the public came to us in the streets, thanking us. However, we did not have any parties or financial bonuses – we had a league game three days later so everybody went home."
The Lokomotiv duo are not the only ones involved on Thursday that took part that night; AEK's new coach Nikos Kostenoglou lined up in defence for the Athens outfit. "We were deep into stoppage time and I remember asking the referee if the match would soon be over and he nodded," he told UEFA.com. "Then disaster struck. I can't describe the disappointment we all felt. The trip back to Greece was an Odyssey – never-ending.
"That elimination proved a turning point in our season; from then on we encountered problems on the domestic front as well." For Cherevchenko, whose side lost 3-1 on aggregate to VfB Stuttgart in the last four, that hardship looks to be continuing. "They were the leaders of Greek football at that time, but now they're not having the best of times," he said. "Their coach, Manolo Jiménez, was dismissed, and Eidur Gudjohnsen broke his leg last week."
His experience that night has made him wary, however, and with Dmitri Torbinski, Dmitri Tarasov, Magomed Ozdoev and Felipe Caicedo all doubts, he knows Lokomotiv must be on their guard. "It's always difficult to face Greek sides, especially away from home. They are technically gifted, and play with desire. Everybody here has already forgotten our big victory over FC Tom Tomsk [3-0 on Sunday]; we're focused on the Europa League."
Additional reporting from Vassiliki Papantonopoulou in Athens