The Soviet Septuplets: Europa League Hopefuls
Hello again from the other side of the Iron Curtain.
The observant will recall that a couple of days ago NMTB brought you a run-down of the three Former Soviet Union entrants to the Champions League group stages; now it's time for the entrants to what used to be the UEFA Cup...
Europa League Group D Ã¢ÂÂ Sporting (Lisbon), Heerenveen, Hertha Berlin
Like the other three Europa League representatives of the Motherland, Ventspils dropped out of the Champions League qualifying stages to get there.
The Latvian title-holders have won the last three Virsliga trophies, but have remained largely anonymous in Europe until they defeated BATE Borisov earlier this season, perhaps demonstrating that they wonÃ¢ÂÂt be pushovers any more.
Since that famous victory in late July, they've installed the Italian Nunzio Zavettieri as their new manager.
He will preside over a multinational crop of players, and a lot may depend on how quickly he gets them playing the way he wants them to.
NMTB isnÃ¢ÂÂt predicting any more shocks for them, and Zavettieri will probably just be content for them to go out there and do themselves justice.
SHERIFF TIRASPOL, MOLDOVA*
Europa League Group H Ã¢ÂÂ Steaua Bucuresti, Fenerbahce, Twente Enschede
*or Transdniestr, depending on your allegiances
An old friend (or foe) of the blog is making its inaugural appearance in the group stages of a major European competition, and NMTB will be keen to see how the side from the breakaway republic of Transdniestr fare.
The blog has had the misfortune to have attended several Moldovan league matches and it's always terribly difficult to ascertain just how good, or bad, Sheriff are, what with the dire standard of the Divisia Nationala that they have won for the last nine seasons with relative ease.
The Europa League will provide all concerned with the perfect gauge by which to judge them.
The propaganda war with "neighbouring" Moldova is an intensely fierce one, and the blog is under no illusions that SheriffÃ¢ÂÂs achievements will provide the perfect fodder for the pariah stateÃ¢ÂÂs government as it continues its 18-year pursuit for independence.
TheyÃ¢ÂÂll also be extremely keen to showcase the magnificent Sheriff Stadium, where few visiting fans will have experienced such a surreal away-day.
A trip to Tiraspol is rarely straightforward Ã¢ÂÂ even for Moldovans, who must complete an immigration card for the delectation of corrupt officials who habitually fleece foreigners of anything up to $30 for an imaginary visa to enter and exit the schismatic state.
They might put the kybosh on that that while the eyes of the world are on them, or it could provide immigration workers with an ideal opportunity to fill their boots.
Either way, a journey to the Sheriff Stadium is certainly going to be a daunting one for away fans this season.
BATE BORISOV (BELARUS)
Europa League Group I Ã¢ÂÂ Benfica, Everton, AEK Athens
You may recall these chaps from last seasonÃ¢ÂÂs Champions League.
They were the first ever representatives from Belarus (and probably the only ones for some considerable time) to reach the group stages of the competition, and didnÃ¢ÂÂt give too bad an account of themselves, either, drawing twice with mighty Juventus.
NMTB once spent an enjoyable couple of weeks in Belarus (seriously), but then again it wasnÃ¢ÂÂt playing European football, and Viktor HancharentvaÃ¢ÂÂs side, who boast a mean defence, might just make it difficult for visiting teams if their fervent supporters get behind them.
BATE Borisov have won the last three Vysshaya Liga championships and dropped into the Europa League after enduring a dreadful Champions League campaign that promised so much after last seasonÃ¢ÂÂs exploits.
They should be back for another crack at it next year, though, as BATE holding a commanding lead in the league table at the moment.
SHAKHTAR DONETSK (UKRAINE)
Europa League Group J Ã¢ÂÂ Club Brugge, Partizan (Belgrade), Toulouse
NMTB had high hopes that Shakhtar DonetskÃ¢ÂÂs triumph in the UEFA Cup last season would act as a springboard for their success in the Champions League this year.
Quite how the Ukrainians failed to overcome Romanian outfit Timisoara in the qualifiers is beyond the blog.
That loss cost them their commanding defender Dmytro Chygrynskiy, who has since defected to the West to join Barcelona in a big-money move.
That will be a considerable blow to the Miners, but they should still possess enough quality to be in the competition towards the business end of the season, in spite of having Julius Aghahowa back at the club.
They won't win the Europa League, though.
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