Araz keep Azeri flag flying

Group C contenders Araz Naxçivan were only set up in 2004 but already carry the UEFA Futsal Cup hopes of Azerbaijan on their shoulders.

With the Elite round of the UEFA Futsal Cup taking place from 4 December, is having a closer look at each of the 16 sides involved. Today we profile Group C contenders Araz Naxçivan of Azerbaijan, who take on two-time European champions Action 21 Charleroi, hosts Clearex Chorzów and KMF Marbo Beograd.

Short history
Araz were only founded in 2004, but immediately established dominance in Azeri futsal, taking over from the traditional capital giants Gömrükçü Baku, MFK Turan Air Baku and Tribut Baku. While money was starting to be channelled away from futsal into the eleven-a-side game, businessman Zaur Akhundov bucked the trend and set up a club containing the best local talent plus Brazilian duo Pneu and Siji from Turan Air, who had completed the double in 2003/04 but went out of business midway through the following season. Mammad Zeynalov, a former team-mate of much of the new squad, was made head coach while matches were played at the 5,000-seater Hand Games Palace in Baku despite the club being nominally based in the autonomous region of Naxcivan.

Spectacular run
In the first season the domestic double was wrapped up with ease, Araz winning 14 league games and drawing the other two, scoring 116 goals and conceding just 20. Last season it was a similar story, although Araz did lose two league fixtures - winning the other 20 while scoring 145 times. Indeed, those two defeats came in the final three games with the title already wrapped up, and the Azeri Futsal Cup was successfully defended, Araz totalling 36 goals in their five-match run. They also made their European debut, drawing 4-4 with Charleroi's Belgian compatriots Cristal Noir MB Morlanwelz, losing 4-2 to group hosts MNK Karaka CO Mostar of Bosnia-Herzegovina and defeating Dutch side FCK De Hommel 3-0.

Strong squad
This term they already have six wins from as many league games, and although Pneu - now an Azeri international - has been sacked for disciplinary reasons and Araz are looking to replace him prior to the mini-tournament in Poland, they still have a high-class squad with rich experience including just three foreign players - Siji, Georgian Aleksandr Dzabiradze and young Russian Petr Kapkov, who scored five goals in the Main round. Marat Salyanski, a former champion of Azerbaijan with Tribut, keeps goal, Agatair Azimov is a prolific striker while the experienced Rashadat Allakhyarov wears the captain's armband. Young duo Vitaliy Borisov and Tofig Mikailov are also important, and indeed Araz players also form the backbone of Azerbaijan national side.

Belyi in charge
While Zeynalov leads the team in domestic competition, experienced Russian coach Arkadiy Belyi is in charge for European fixtures, having played in the team that won the 1999 UEFA European Futsal Championship and more recently coached MFK Dina Moskva. They negotiated the Main round in Croatia with ease, defeating experienced hosts MNK Split 5-3, Athina '90 Athens 5-1 and Swedish qualifiers Skövde AIK 10-4.

Ambitious president
That particularly pleased Akhundov. "In the qualifying round we defeated the strongest clubs of Greece, Sweden and Croatia, also producing spectacular football," he said. "The opposition will be stronger now but the most important thing for us is to play our own futsal. By doing so we have a chance to win. Now we have to reinforce the squad with a quality foreign player because we parted company with Pneu. We care a lot about discipline which was not his strong point."