After stunning Serie A last season by finishing fifth, AC Chievo Verona are primed for their first European adventure when they face FK Crvena Zvezda in the UEFA Cup first round in Belgrade tomorrow.
Coach Luigi Del Neri's side started the new term on Saturday in the same vein they finished the last, defeating S.S. Lazio 3-2 at the Stadio Olimpico in a thrilling encounter. "If we continue like this, it will soon no longer be considered a surprise," said Del Neri in an exclusive interview with uefa.com. "I knew that we had not forgotten how we played last season and I'm sure that we will continue to show great self-confidence this year too."
Yet in recent times Italian clubs have disappointed in Europe with their conservative approach. As a result coaches are attempting to be more attacking. Del Neri sees the change as beneficial. "We don't have to change too much to win European trophies again," he said. "But it's nice to see that big clubs are trying to assume a more offensive mentality. Fans want to see more goals and more entertaining football."
The 51-year-old Del Neri was forced to sell striker Bernardo Corradi to Internazionale FC and left-winger Christian Manfredini to Lazio over the summer but appears to have bought wisely with Oliver Bierhoff impressing against Lazio. "It's good for us that the big clubs didn't want a player like Bierhoff," Del Neri said. "He's a terrific striker and the perfect signing for Chievo because he is like us. He works hard and has the perfect mentality because he has played with small clubs like Ascoli Calcio and Udinese Calcio.
"The UEFA Cup is a great adventure for us. We want to make a good impression, but don't feel any pressure. Just to take part is a great achievement." Of Crvena Zvezda, who won the UEFA Champion Clubs' Cup in 1991, he said: "They are not a team that can win the Champions League anymore, but they are still a great side."
Great side or not, Crvena Zvezda have not beaten an Italian club in seven attempts and lost their only previous Italian encounter in the UEFA Cup to Hellas-Verona FC in 1983. They reached the UEFA Cup final in 1979, but missed out 2-1 on aggregate against VfL Borussia Mönchengladbach.
Out of form
Crvena Zvezda are also not in the richest vein of form having failed to win in the league this season. "It will be difficult," Crvena Zvezda president Dragan Dzajic said. "Chievo were excellent last season. They are newcomers in Europe and therefore have great ambitions." Coach Zoran Filipovic concurred: "Chievo are favourites, but I am hoping for a miracle."
As for Chievo, Bierhoff was certainly true to his coach's word. "We are strong enough to beat any opponent," he said. "I am predicting two exciting matches." It is that sort of self-confidence and ebullience that has won Chievo so many admirers - and matches.