Young Jaba Kankava is leading FC Dinamo Tbilisi's charge for a place in the group stage.
By Vakhtang Bzikadze
As FC Dinamo Tbilisi aim to seal a place in the inaugural UEFA Cup group stages in the second leg of their first-round tie against Wisla Kraków tonight, they have youth on their side.
More specifically, they have 18-year-old Jaba Kankava, a defensive midfield player who is emerging as one of the brightest stars in the firmament of Georgian football. Having scored in the UEFA Cup and recently won his first cap for the national team, it has been a breathless period for the teenager.
With his side trailing 4-3 from the first leg in Poland, in which Kankava scored the opening goal, it seems likely that any kind of win tonight would see Dinamo stride into the next round of the competition, marking a new high in post-Soviet Georgian football. And certainly, the player is aware of what the match means.
"This is the most important match in my career, but I'm ready for it," he said. "I don't feel any fear or nervousness. All of my team-mates will be under a great deal of pressure, but in the end football is just a game, and you have to do your best to outplay your opponents."
Kankava has been following that simple philosophy already this year. Aside from impressing with his energy and fighting spirit, it was his 66th-minute goal in the second leg of Dinamo's away-goals win against SK Slavia Praha that saw his side overcome their Czech opponents to set up the tie with Wisla.
The Georgian champions took first-half leads in the away legs of both of their UEFA Cup ties so far only to be pegged back by the hour mark. In Poland they were 2-0 up by half-time, but conceded in the 59th and 61st minutes to lose their lead. For some Georgian critics, this was evidence that George Geguchadze's side lacked fitness.
Kankava disagreed. "When you are in front away from home by two goals the home team must take a risk," he said. "The Polish club took that risk and got lucky on that occasion, but I insist that we are not the kind of team which stops playing at half-time because we are ahead."
But for that second-half slump, Dinamo may have been anticipating a relaxed game in Tbilisi today. Instead they must be at their best against a Wisla side that remain unbeaten in the Polish Ekstraklasa, winning their last league game 7-1 at Zaglebie Lubin.
However, Kankava for one will not lack determination. The youngster was given his international debut by coach Alain Giresse in the final 30 minutes of Georgia's 2-0 win against Albania on 8 September, and would dearly love to earn a place on the pitch in the next FIFA World Cup qualifier against Ukraine on 13 October.
"Every player dreams about playing for his country," said Kankava. "My international cap shows that the coach has trust in me. However, I must work very hard to become a real member of the national squad."
Hard work, as so many of Dinamo's opponents have discovered, is something of a speciality for Kankava. He also does a neat sideline in inspirational speaking, as he exhorted fans to come out in force for tonight's game. "
Come, support us and we will do everything it takes to make your dreams come true," he said. With Kankava in great form, it is a tempting offer.