"When I came onto the pitch I saw so many stars," said loan signing Emir Spahić who will try to help FC Anji Makhachkala stretch a 100% European record in Russia on Thursday.
Article top media content
Newcastle United FC know they are up against it as they visit Russia to face FC Anji Makhachkala in the first leg of their UEFA Europa League round of 16 tie.
The Dagestan side have won all seven of their European home games on Russian soil*, conceding only once in the process – in their round of 32 success against Hannover 96. More remarkable still, they have maintained that victorious run despite being unable to play matches in their native Makhachkala; instead they have staged UEFA fixtures in three different stadiums this season – the Saturn in Ramenskoye and Moscow's Lokomotiv and Luzhniki Stadions.
The secret of their success is remarkably simple: they have a very powerful squad and an extremely experienced coach, Guus Hiddink. During the winter they invested a reputed €30m in signing Willian from FC Shakhtar Donetsk, as well as enlisting Russian international Andrei Eschenko from FC Lokomotiv Moskva and Bosnia and Herzegovina centre-back Emir Spahić, loaned from Sevilla FC to replace the homesick Christopher Samba.
Spahić is no greenhorn, but even the 32-year-old did a double take as he settled in for his first Anji training session. "When I came onto the pitch I saw so many stars," he said. "I don't know the right word to express my feelings – it's just a rush. Roberto Carlos, Samuel Eto'o, Lassana Diarra, Yuri Zhirkov, Mbark Boussoufa – yet I didn't get any air of arrogance from them. I felt part of the team.
"There has been a lot of news about Anji in the last two years," added Spahić, whose new side are second in the Russian Premier League, with the domestic campaign resuming this weekend. "The whole world is interested in what's going on here."
Newcastle will certainly know all about the ambitious team from Makhachkala, who were frequent flyers long before they returned to European competition this term. The club's normal practice in domestic football has been to train in and around Moscow, flying south to the capital of Dagestan for matchdays only.
Russian sides in general are gaining considerable attention in the round of 16 – only the English Premier League has as many representatives – with FC Zenit St Petersburg and FC Rubin Kazan completing the trio. With Anji and Newcastle meeting, at least one of those leagues will lose a team by the quarter-finals, and having overcome Liverpool FC 1-0 in Moscow in the group stage, Anji will fancy their chances.
"I am happy to see three Russian clubs competing at this stage," said the 66-year-old Hiddink, who has poured scorn on the suggestion he will retire from football at the season's end. "This shows the rising standard of Russian football."
Newcastle boss Alan Pardew, however, feels his charges can hold their own. "I would put my best team up against any team in this competition and feel confident," he said.
*Prior to this campaign, Anji had played one previous UEFA competition match – a 1-0 defeat by Rangers FC in the 2001/02 UEFA Cup first round, in a one-off game held in Warsaw.