ADVENTURES abroad are not always to the land of milk and honey. Motherwell spent most of last season striving to secure a European place, but for all their satisfaction at getting the job done, the rewards are dubious.
Of course, they would rather be in the Europa League than out of it, but a third qualifying round tie against Kuban Krasnodar, a Russian club squeezed between the borders of Ukraine and Georgia, is probably not what they had in mind.
Last year, Motherwell lost a Champions League qualifier to Panathinaikos, as well as a Europa League qualifier to Levante. Not only were the trips to Greece and Spain manageable, the home legs were marketable, worthwhile exercises, irrespective of the outcome.
Kuban, on the other hand, make for a nightmare combination. They are not the biggest crowd-pullers, but they are more than capable of sending Motherwell packing. Last season, they finished just behind big-spending Anzhi Makhachkala and ahead of Spartak Moscow in the Russian League.
Motherwell’s journey beyond the Black Sea will be inordinately expensive. To make matters worse, a defeat over two legs would leave them with no opportunity to earn their money back later in the competition.
Stuart McCall, whose Motherwell team will contest the first leg at Fir Park on Thursday, believes that the qualifying rounds of the Europa League, which exists to cater for the continent’s less wealthy clubs, should be regionalised.
“When I first heard the draw, I thought it wasn’t too bad, but then you look at the travelling and the expense,” says McCall. “I did my Pro licence at Den Haag last year and they told me they’d beaten FK Tauras in the Europa League the previous season, but by the time they’d paid their way to Lithuania and back, they’d lost money on it.
“Last year, we were able to charter a plane for £60,000, but for this tie we’re having to pay £180,000 and there isn’t the TV money you’d get if it was a German or Italian club. No one here had heard of Kuban Krasnodar, but they’ve spent a fortune on their squad and they finished ahead of Rubin Kazan last season. That’s the downside, but it just makes it all the more important for us to win.
“I can’t understand why they don’t regionalise the qualifying rounds because it would save everyone money. As it stands, you can only make a profit by actually reaching the group stage.”
The distance between Motherwell and Krasnodar also prohibits the time-honoured “spying mission”, although McCall wonders if that will work in his team’s favour. While he has been able to watch videos of Kuban’s first three league matches, there has been no opportunity for his Russian counterpart to undertake similar research. So far, Motherwell’s only games have been pre-season friendlies.
“It works both ways,” says McCall. “They’re already into their competitive season and are three weeks ahead of us, but it also means that they haven’t been able to see us play. Unless they change things dramatically, they’ll play a 4-3-2-1. We know that about them, but even I don’t know yet what formation we’ll use on Thursday.”
While the Kuban player best known to a British audience is Djibril Cisse – the former Liverpool and Queens Park Rangers striker – Ibrahima Balde usually plays alone up front, with Ivelin Popov just behind. That combination is one that Paul Lawson, a new signing from Ross County, will be given the job of handling.
Stephen McManus, the former Celtic defender, is also likely to be important in his first competitive outing for Motherwell. His experience will be vital in a team that, by McCall’s own admission, were guilty of naivety in Europe last season. Not only did they fail to score in any of their four matches, their efforts to do so left them exposed at the back.
McCall says that, when the first leg is at home, as it was against both Panathinaikos and Levante, the objective should be not to win the tie, but to remain in it. “I look back at Panathinaikos last season… they got a free kick early and scored on a breakaway, but in the second half, we’re on top, the crowd’s behind us, and if anyone’s going to score it’s us – then bang, sucker punch. And Levante did exactly the same to us in the Europa League.
“There’ll be stages against Kuban when the crowd will be right behind us, but we can’t get caught up in it all. We have to be more aware of the counter attacks. We want to win the game, but we want to be in it when we are playing away. We weren’t in it for either trip last season. It would be nice to go with a lead, and that’s what we’ll aim to do, but we have to be aware that, when we think we’re doing well, good teams only need five seconds to hurt you.”