Zimbru Chisinau steeled for PAOK decider

Describing his players as "heroes already" for reaching the play-offs, FC Zimbru Chisinau's Oleg Kubarev knows they must produce another special display to beat PAOK FC.

Zimbru Chisinau steeled for PAOK decider
Zimbru Chisinau steeled for PAOK decider ©Boris Kharchenko

His players having already surpassed themselves by reaching the play-offs, coach Oleg Kubarev promises that FC Zimbru Chisinau will give it one last push to knock out PAOK FC in what midfielder Anatoli Cheptine calls the Moldovan side's "most important game in the last ten years".

A UEFA Europa League qualifying campaign that began on 1 July with a 2-1 loss to FK Shkëndija 79 concludes in Greece on Thursday with Zimbru 1-0 up in their play-off tie courtesy of Ştefan Burghiu's 80th-minute header last week. With FC Sheriff – Moldova's only previous group stage participant, in 2009/10 and 2010/11 – trailing HNK Rijeka 1-0, it could be that the club ranked 370th in the UEFA coefficients are the country's sole representative in Friday's draw in Monaco.

Such a scenario was the last thing on Kubarev's mind when his team kicked off their European season against Shkëndija in the Former Yugoslav Republic of Macedonia. "I wouldn't recommend dreaming about the group stage because it will be extremely hard to get there," he said at the time. "The most important thing for us is to win in the first [qualifying] round."

Zimbru celebrate their CSKA Sofia win
Zimbru celebrate their CSKA Sofia win©Boris Kharchenko

Prevail they did and after away-goals triumphs over both PFC CSKA Sofia and Austria's SV Grödig, the eight-time Moldovan champions stand on the brink of an unlikely achievement. "We are still in the competition thanks to our team performances," explained Kubarev, who signed a new one-year deal before the first leg against Salonika heavyweights PAOK. "We have played to the limit of our capabilities in every match.

"The victory over CSKA Sofia was the most memorable – we were so happy," continued the 48-year-old Belarusian. "It was the moment my players felt they were capable of great things. We will do our best one more time to get to the group stage. If we do, the players will be heroes, although they are already."

PAOK progressed to the round of 32 of this competition last term and Kubarev knows the Moldovan Cup holders are in for a testing 90 minutes – or possibly longer. "A narrow home win is a good result taking into the account the strength of our opponents, though it will be very difficult to defend our advantage in Greece," he said, though Zimbru welcome back experienced midfielder Alexandru Dedov after suspension. "PAOK are really dangerous at home."

Captain Iulian Erhan added: "We are not scared. We are not at all afraid and are ready to play well in order to get a result."