DESPITE a wealth of European experience earned with Rangers, Motherwell manager Stuart McCall has admitted he was “overwhelmed” last season, when his Fir Park side embarked on their short-lived adventures in the Champions League and then Europa League qualifying rounds.
There is no disgrace in being beaten by teams of the quality of Panathinaikos and Levante. Motherwell have hardly been favoured by the draw this time around either. Not too much might have been known about Kuban Krasnodar before the teams were paired together in the Europa League qualifying tie, but it is clear that the bankrolled Russian club present a formidable challenge. McCall has seen enough footage of them to reach this conclusion. Motherwell performed creditably in Valencia against Levante last season but the tie had already slipped from them by then, and it was the same scenario in Athens.
Motherwell were caught cold by Panathinaikos, who won 2-0 at Fir Park, then 3-0 in Greece. It was equally tough against Levante in the Europa League. They again failed to score in a 3-0 aggregate defeat, although they lost only 1-0 away, after conceding a late goal. The damage had been done at Fir Park.
“I openly admit that I am a manager who likes to see his team get at teams, but we have to be careful,” McCall said.
The manager yesterday acknowledged that he had been fazed by the prospect of playing a club with Panathinaikos’ European heritage. Levante, meanwhile, had recently drawn with Barcelona in La Liga before taking on Motherwell. In both ties, the first leg was played at Fir Park, and Motherwell have again been drawn at home first against Kuban Krasnodar. McCall is determined to ensure that his side’s chances remain alive when they embark on the long journey to southern Russia next week. He has warned his players to be more streetwise this time, although there are precious few still left from 12 months ago after a remarkable overhaul of the squad. He, too, needs to heed his own advice, he admitted.
“Subconsciously I was probably overwhelmed last year with the Champions League and Panathinaikos, and I felt it would almost be a miracle if we got through,” he said. “Then we got Levante and you look at them drawing with Barcelona.
“My philosophy in the SPL has always been to score more than the opposition,” he said. “But it would be naïve to think that way, especially against Kuban. But the approach to the game, certainly at home, has to be different. As long as we are in the tie going to Russia, that’s the aim.
It is expected that Paul Lawson will play as an anchor man while experienced skipper Keith Lasley will also be charged with keeping Kuban Krasnodar’s playmakers quiet in the middle of the park. Motherwell’s hopes have been buoyed by the recent departure of the creative midfielder Aras Ozbiliz, who has joined Spartak Moscow in a near £9 million deal.
However, the Russians still carry a significant threat and Hibs’ collapse against Malmo last week has given McCall pause for thought. The Motherwell manager was at Easter Road to see the hosts hit for seven. “You’ve got to be careful because nights like that can happen against real quality,” he said.
Kuban Krasnodar do not appear to be so adventurous, and are almost certain to play with one up front and two sitting midfielders. The striker could be Djibril Cisse, the former Liverpool and Queens Park Rangers forward. He moved to Kuban Krasnodar during the summer after being released by the latter club. However, Ibrahima Balde is another option at centre forward in what will surely prove a testing debut for Stephen McManus, the former Celtic centre-half who has passed a fitness test and should start.
Ten of Kuban Krasnodar’s last 15 matches have been drawn and McCall would be comfortable with a 0-0 scoreline at home tonight. “Apart from one direct free kick, their goals this season have been from counter attacks,” he said. “They are still a threat when we are attacking. Are they better than Panathinaikos? I don’t know. All I know is that we know enough about them. We are reading without being match sharp. We’re not fearing the tie.”
Unusually for him, McCall told his players the team on Monday. “Never ever have I named a team that early,” he said. “But I did it because I wanted the players to be right from the outset. We’ve shaped up and done a lot of work. I don’t think we have any Krasnador supporters in our midst, so hopefully there are no moles going to them [and telling them the team].
He suggested that the personnel might be along the lines of those who started the recent friendly with Nottingham Forest, which finished 1-1. “I just felt after the Forest game I was happy with how I wanted to play. I just wanted them to be aware so we could focus for a few days. It’s the first time I’ve ever done it and I am pleased with how I have prepared.”
WHO ARE YOU? 10 facts about Kuban
• The club was founded in 1928, making them one of the oldest teams in Russia. They have gone by four different names but have stuck with Kuban since 1963.
• The 2010 Russian First Division (second-tier) crown is the club’s only recognised league title. In 1963 they finished top of their Soviet First League group but were not permitted to join the elite division.
• The club are four-time winners of the (now defunct) Russian Soviet Federative Socialist Republic Championshipin which the more famous Russian clubs, eg Spartak, did not take part in. Like a Soviet Challenge Cup.
• Their home ground is the Kuban Stadium, which they share with local rivals FC Krasnodar, but Kuban plan to begin construction on a new, 45,000-seat FC Kuban Stadium this year and hope to move in 2016.
• The city of Krasnodar (pop. 750,000) is dwarfed by the catchment area of their rivals in Moscow (11.5 million) and St Petersburg (4.5million), but Kuban had the highest average attendance in the Russian Premier League last season of just under 21,000.
• Their all-time top goalscorer is Alexander Ploshnik. He played 15 seasons with the club in the Soviet second tier, becoming the 11th all time goalscorer for that level of Soviet football.
• Since starting in the Russian Premier League in the 1992 season the club has changed manager 25 times – not including interim managers. One ex-boss is former Chelsea defender Dan Petrescu who led the side back into the top division in 2010. The current boss is Romanian football legend Dorineal Munteanu.
• Kuban’s team includes former Liverpool and QPR striker Djibril Cisse, former Valencia defender Angel Dealbert, ex-Marseille midfielder Charles Kabore and forward Ibrahima Balde.
• They have already played three league games, resulting in creditable 1-1 draws with Rubin Kazan and Zenit and a win over newly promoted Tom Tomsk.
• In 2011, Kuban tried to dissolve Montenegrin forward Nikola Nikezic’s contract in order to release funds to buy new players. When he refused to
sign the mutual termination contract, in the player’s words, two men beat him up for 20 minutes until he signed. The player appealed to Fifa and was awarded e180,000 in compensation.