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The Champions of Europe will be crowned this week when the Final Four of the UEFA Futsal Cup takes place in Baku, Azerbaijan. It begins on Thursday with two enticing semi-finals, Kairat v Dynamo Moscow and Araz v Barcelona, followed by the third place playoff and final on Saturday. Here is my preview of the teams and matches followed by my predicitions. You can find the schedule for the tournament below.
Reigning champions Kairat will be looking to defend the title they won when they defeated their semi-final opponents in last year’s final. Since that triumph they have lost key players in Leo Santana and Betao but have added Brazilians Café, Caio Junior, Danilo Baron and Rubinho.
In the previous Final Four they took all the teams by surprise with their unpredictable use of the fly goalkeeper. With a powerful shot and precise pass, their goalkeeper Higuita will often come into the attacking half to join his team’s attacks with little time for their opposition to prepare. This year their use of this tactic will not be unexpected but that does not necessarily mean it will be less effective. They recently claimed the Eremenko Cup defeating Russia’s best sides, with the exception of Dynamo who did not participate, using the same strategy successfully despite it now being well known.
Dynamo have finished runners up in the last two finals and have only one UEFA Futsal Cup title despite reaching the finals for a record 6th time this season. They arrive in scintillating form after last week winning the Russian Cup and ending the regular season in 1st place by an impressive 10 point margin. Since last season they have only brought in the experienced 37 year old Paulinho Japonés to play the Final Four and Dieguinho, Popov and Shayakhmetov have been moved on. They earned the title of world’s best club by winning the Intercontinental Cup in the summer and they will now want to demonstrate their prowess by taking the European title. Before winning the cup in 2007 they had lost the two previous finals so they will be hoping that this is an omen for success this time.
The key to this game will be how Dynamo nullify Kairat’s use of Higuita as the fly goalkeeper. Last year they were unprepared and unable to find a solution. This time they have planned for this and worked on a strategy to defend the 5v4 situation. The effectiveness of countering this will be the deciding factor but they will also need their finishing to be more clinical than in the final last time.
The Azerbaijan club are the only team in the final four not to have won the trophy, with all the other teams having a single championship. As hosts they are determined to give a good account of themselves and to be able to do this they have signed 2003 World Player of the Year Andrea Foglia, Slovenian star Kristjan Cujec and former Dynamo goalkeeper Aleksei Popov.
They are up against a Barca side that after winning a quadruple and treble in the last two years has stuttered for form this season and recently were knocked out by league leaders Inter Movistar 6-1 in the Spanish Cup semi-finals. However they are currently having their best run of results of the season, with six consecutive league wins, so the Final Four has arrived at a good time for the Catalans. And let’s not forget that their squad includes the current World Player of the Year, the formidable Sergio Lozano.
The Azulgrana are the favourites for this game and two areas will be especially crucial. First are set plays where Araz have many problems in defence and Barca’s are very effective in attack. The second is the goalkeeper, the most important player in any futsal team. Paco Sedano is arguably Spain’s best goalkeeper despite not being selected by Spain for this year’s Futsal EURO and Araz’s Buranello and Popov both are liable to concede goals that you would expect them to stop.
I am not so confident in my prediction for the first semi-final but I will go for a Dynamo victory. Kairat just edged it in a close encounter in the final last year, winning 4-3. The fact that Dynamo will have learnt the lesson from last year and prepared for Kairat’s use of the fly goalkeeper will put the tie in their favour on this occasion. However, it certainly wouldn’t be a surprise like last year if Kairat defeat the Russian champions.
In the second semi-final I expect Barcelona to beat the hosts. The Spanish side’s defeat in the semi-final last year is still raw and they are very motivated to not fall at the same stage again. Although Araz have made some astute signings, these players haven’t had long to adapt to the team and they still don’t have the depth in quality of Barca. More importantly, with both clubs possessing talented individuals, the Catalans are challenged every week in a very competitive league whereas Araz win all their domestic games comfortably and may not be as prepared for the high level of play that will be on display in the Final Four.
Assuming my predictions are correct and there is a Dynamo – Barcelona final I will go for the team from Moscow to take the title. I think they have stronger depth in their squad, especially with Barca having a few injury problems including not having their best defender Ari available to mark Dynamo’s pivots.
With the teams very equal it could be the psychological factor that makes the difference. After two successive final defeats Dynamo will be mentally prepared to suffer in order to obtain the victory. Barca has looked unbeatable in the last two years but this season they have shown they can be vulnerable and this will give the Russians added confidence that this is their moment.
Whatever the results, I am sure there will be four games of high level futsal with lots of drama and surprises to look forward to. Make sure you don’t miss it!