The Donna, Phil, Roman & Lenny show

Donna Summer might not agree but Fredy Bickel, FC Zurich’s general manager, believes the Swiss champions’ game for a place in the 2009/10 UEFA Champions League group stage against Latvian titleholders Ventspils will be “hot stuff.”

While Arsenal drew Celtic, the team their supporters most wanted to avoid, Ventspils feel the UEFA balls have been awfully nice to them.

Former coach Roman Grygorchuk (who this week has been replaced by ex-Udinese assistant Nunzio Zavetteri - see below) was honest enough to admit he didn’t care who the team faced: “All five seeded teams probably wanted to play against Ventspils as we are not known at this level.”


Grygorchuk: A then-happy chappy 

They are no mugs, accomplishing one relatively simple task – disposing of Luxembourg’s F91 Dudelange – and capping that with something much harder, a plucky progress on away goals against Belarus’s BATE Borisov who drew with Juventus and Zenit St Petersburg last season.

The Latvians had the better of the first leg on home soil, winning 1-0 and missing more chances than BATE. In Belarus, they snatched a 14th-minute away goal through versatile, technically accomplished Moldovan midfielder Igor Tigirlas.

Despite a rearguard action worthy of John Wayne at the Alamo, Ventspils could still have lost 3-1 if Maksim Skavysh hadn’t shot wide from a good position with 14 minutes to go.

Though the Zurich general manager and coach were careful not to say anything daft or complacent after the draw, nobody gives the Latvians much of a chance. Which may suit them.

Still only 44, Grigorchuk led Ventspils to three Latvian titles in a row, the kind of domestic monopoly enjoyed by the club he admires most (Manchester United).

But he remained disarmingly modest, noting: “When you start learning, you know nothing. Then, as time goes by, you start to think you know a lot. Then you learn a bit more and you realise you know nothing.”

Ventspils drew away to Newcastle United in a UEFA Cup qualifier in 2006, even though only one supporter travelled to St James’s Park – and was promptly mocked by the Toon Army with various choruses of “You’ve only got one fan!”

It is a mark of how rapidly fortunes yo-yo in football – and the tragicomic ineptitude of Newcastle United’s senior management – that, only three years later, it is the team with only one fan – rather than the side with 30,497 – that are only 180 minutes away from the UEFA Champions League group stage.

The odds on Tigirlas’ old club, Sheriff, reaching the last 32 would seem longer still.

Still, Leonid Kuchuk, the wily Belarussian who coaches the Moldovan champions, does have one thing in his favour.

Temuri Ketsbaia, the passionate Georgian who steered Anorthosis to the group stage last season, has only been coaching Olympiacos since May and, given the volatility of Greek football, this tie could easily become a referendum on his job.


Ketsbaia: No pressure... 

But for new boss Zavetteri and Kuchuck, the appropriate soundtrack might not be found in Donna Summer’s oeuvre but in the surprisingly controversial (well, in Southport anyway) body of work by Phil Collins: Against All Odds.

...

God famously works in mysterious ways. But even his works don’t cause quite as much perplexity as European football.

Since I wrote this blog, with Ventspils just 180 minutes away from becoming the first ever Latvian club to reach the UEFA Champions League group stage, the club has changed coaches.

Udinese’s old assistant Nunzio Zavetteri has replaced Grigorchuk who, internet scuttlebutt suggests, has walked out, though he says the decision was taken by both sides a long time ago.

Success can exacerbate tensions within clubs, it would be a pity if it scuppers Ventspil’s heroic attempt to reach the last 32.

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