Azerbaijan stages its first UEFA final tournament as the UEFA Futsal Cup concludes with FC Dynamo, Araz Naxçivan and FC Barcelona out to steal Kairat Almaty's crown.
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Finals schedule (all times CET)
Semi-finals: Thursday 24 April
15.30: Kairat Almaty (KAZ, holders) v FC Dynamo (RUS)
18.00: Araz Naxçivan (AZE, hosts) v FC Barcelona (ESP)
Third-place play-off: Saturday 26 April, 16.00
Final: Saturday 26 April, 18.30
From a record field of 49 teams that entered the 2013/14 UEFA Futsal Cup, four are still standing to chase, over the next three days, the dream of being crowned European club champions at Baku's Sarhadchi Olympic Sport Complex.
Araz Naxçivan, the host club in the Azerbaijani capital, are contesting this final stage for the second time, having finished third in 2010. The perennial champions of Azerbaijan welcome the top three from last season's tournament in Tbilisi: holders Kairat Almaty from Kazakhstan, 2007 winners FC Dynamo of Russia and FC Barcelona, bronze medallists in Georgia having clinched gold in Lleida 12 months before.
The four sides go into Thursday's semi-finals, with the final and third-place play-off two days later.
Araz, named after the river that flows through Naxcivan and acts as a border between Azerbaijan and Iran, are the only unseeded finalists. Whereas Kairat, Dynamo and Barcelona received byes into the third and last phase of qualifying – the elite round – coach Alesio's men had to negotiate both the main round and the elite round. Eventually a sensational 6-3 victory over the competition's fourth seeded team, Sporting Clube de Portugal, in Lisbon took them through.
Their presence in the finals has enabled the UEFA Futsal Cup to explore further new territory: just as Kazakhstan and Georgia held their first UEFA final tournaments in 2011 and 2013 respectively, so Azerbaijan now debuts as hosts of a showpiece event.
Rövnag Abdullayev, president of the Association of Football Federations of Azerbaijan (AFFA), is thrilled at the opportunity. "It is my pleasure to welcome participants, fans and guests to our beautiful city Baku, which is now rightly renowned as a major international sporting centre. I would like to thank UEFA for allowing the Azerbaijani capital to host the UEFA Futsal Cup finals, which represent another significant sporting milestone for our country. I am confident that staging this tournament will create a valuable legacy and serve as a great foundation for the further development of futsal in Azerbaijan."
It has taken 99 games to get to this exciting denouement at the 2,200-seater Sarhadchi arena, which opened in August 2009. Twenty-nine of the competition's 49 entrants, representing 48 different countries, kicked off in August's preliminary round.
Araz are relative newcomers to this elite company: while it is their ninth straight season in Europe, they have reached the semi-finals just once before – four years ago in Lisbon when they came third. Opponents Barcelona, coached by Marc Carmona, have been in the last four in all three of their entries, triumphing as hosts on their 2012 debut before coming unstuck against Kairat last year.
Cacau's Kairat will play their sixth semi-final since 2005/06, though it was only last term that they actually won one. The Kazakh club stunned Barcelona 5-4 with a Fumasa hat-trick before an equally impressive 4-3 defeat of Dynamo, keeper Higuita scoring the decisive goal.
That meant that Dynamo – led by Faustino Pérez – lost a second straight final, just as in 2006. Twelve months on from that, they claimed their sole continental title; the survivors of their 2007 success are Aleksandr Rakhimov, Cirilo, Tatù and match winner Pula.
Whatever drama unfolds in Baku this week, holders Kairat should be aware that no team has successfully defended the trophy since Playas de Castellón FS won the first two editions in 2002 and 2003.