Araz Naxçivan are "better than they have ever been" according to FC Barcelona coach Marc Carmona as the Azerbaijani hosts get ready to face the 2012 champions.
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Araz Naxçivan coach Alesio is confident new boys Adriano Foglia and Kristjan Čujec can boost the hosts' chances when they face 2012 European club champions FC Barcelona in Thursday's second UEFA Futsal Cup semi-final.
Italian international Foglia and Slovenia's Čujec were signed recently, along with Ukraine goalkeeper Aleksei Popov, to supplement a squad built around the Azerbaijan national team that Alesio also trains. According to the coach, the newcomers are ready for the challenge of tackling the Spanish heavyweights at Baku's Sarhadchi Olympic Sport Complex.
"They are players we have brought in to help us and they have definitely adapted to the group. They give us something different – they are experienced, have played national-team championships, and are ready to help. I can't say they are 100% perfect but they are talented professionals and playing against Barcelona is a motivation in itself."
Nor does Alesio – whose side won five games out of six in navigating both the main and elite rounds of qualifying, including a climactic victory at Sporting Clube de Portugal – fear an attack of stage fright given the failure of his Azerbaijani internationals to shine at UEFA Futsal EURO 2014 earlier this year. "We have lots of players who were involved in the EURO, but this is another competition with different conditions. It's a big deal for the country to host this tournament. I hope we can set a good example and help the growth of futsal in Azerbaijan."
Opponents Barcelona, elite round Group A winners during qualification, aim to repeat the success of their debut appearance at the UEFA Futsal Cup, when they triumphed as hosts in Lleida. "The European Cup is the biggest club competition in Europe. It is difficult to get to this stage three years running, considering our tough commitments in Spain," said coach Marc Carmona. "For these reasons it's really important for us and we are delighted to be here. We are fully motivated and want to deliver two good performances and bring the cup home."
However, the Catalan outfit must overcome a possible mental hurdle, having lost two semi-finals in the past 12 months – against eventual champions Kairat Almaty in Georgia last spring, then to Interviú Madrid in this season's Spanish Cup. "We are always concerned when we lose but we know we can't always win," Carmona reasoned. "This group has more memories of victories than of defeats. The important thing is what we do here. The difficulty of any match is the same whether you have lost four in a row or won four. All that matters is our performance tomorrow."
Sergio Lozano has been a fitness doubt for Barça yet his coach expects everyone to be available save for long-term absentee Ari. "This competition is more important than any knock or niggle a player might have," he said. And the Blaugrana will go into the 18.00CET kick-off with words of warning ringing in their ears: "Araz are stronger than the two previous times we've played them because they have better players and a deeper squad. They are better than they have ever been."