Little FC Thun will be turning back time when they face English Premier League side Stoke City in the Europa League playoff round. Six years ago the Swiss minnows made history when knocking out first Dynamo Kyiv and then Malmo, going on to qualify for the group stages of the Champions League. With an annual budget of under €3M, Thun were the smallest side to ever enter the tournament. The club were handed a group containing Arsenal, Ajax and Sparta Prague and, despite being tipped to finish bottom, ended third.
Striker Mauro Lustrinelli was Thun’s hero back in those heady days; the club’s supporters still remember the wonderful goal the hitman struck against Swedish champions Malmo.”Given the club’s small reputation and budget”, said Lustrinelli, “we can say that the Champions League experience was more than just a fine achievement. It was a real miracle.”
After Lustrinelli left Thun in January 2006, the forward turned out for Sparta Prague, Luzern, Young Boys and Bellinzona (the club at which he began his professional career in 1994). Last season however, the 35-year-old’s goals were not enough to save the Granata from relegation, and Lustrinelli opted not to follow the club down to the Swiss second tier, signing for Thun instead.
“When I came back, it was like I had never gone away”, explained Lustrinelli. “The club’s philosophy hasn’t changed: hard work, team spirit and a great footballing culture and absolutely no pressure. Moreover, Thun were ready to begin a new adventure in Europe after finishing fifth last season, just after being promoted from a division lower. I couldn’t ask for more.”
Thun had a difficult start to life back in Europe, negotiating their first test in the Europa League against Albanians Vllaznia only in the dying seconds of the return leg. However, the Super League side impressed in the next round against Serie A outfit Palermo who, despite starting as overwhelming favourites, could not do better than two draws against Thun (2-2 in Italy and 1-1 at the new Thun Arena – the stadium was only opened in July).
“I know that there are a lot of differences between the Champions League and the Europa League”, said Lustrinelli. “However, for a small club like ours, every step further in Europe is a little wonder. Now we have to face a tough contender because Stoke City is a Premier League club. But we have nothing to lose and we’ll surely play our football.”
The veteran striker has not forgotten his first European experience against an English team. “We played Arsenal twice in the 2005/06 Champions League, and we lost both games in the dying minutes. In London Dennis Bergkamp scored the winning goal, while in Switzerland they won thanks to a late Robin van Persie penalty.” Lustrinelli however accepts that against teams with such talent, there is often little that can be done to avoid suffering at their hands. Stoke though present a different kind of challenge. “When you play against stars like these, you know you could lose the game at any moment. Luckily Stoke City have no stars like them in the team. However, we still remain underdogs.”
Under coach Murat Yakin, Thun progressed over the last two seasons, moving from Switzerland’s second tier all the way to the Europa League. Since the start of the 2011/12 Swiss season, under a new boss in Bernard Challandes – appointed after Yakin moved to Luzern – Thun have continued onwards and upwards, with the fresh face in the dugout showing he is able to coax out special performances from a group of unheralded players, leading the side to the top of the Super League.
Alongside the prodigal son Lustrinelli, who at 35 has scored more than 240 goals in his career, Thun’s star is 21-year-old Paraguayan Dario Lezcano. The technically gifted attacking all-rounder was key to the club’s success against Palermo, scoring in the second leg of the tie. Lezcano moved to Thun last January after two seasons spent with Challenge League outfit Wil; now the Paraguayan is on the radar of many of Europe’s bigger clubs and a strong display against Stoke would place him in the shop window even more.
Right midfielder Christian Schneuwly and goalkeeper David da Costa are two other potential stars in coach Challandes’ 4-4-2 machine. Da Costa especially has once again demonstrated how breathing in the Thun air can turn an unimpressive player into a consistent performer. Just two seasons ago the 25-year-old was reserve keeper at Chiasso in the Prima Lega, Swiss football’s third tier. Schneuwly can continue to improve too after failing to hold down a regular spot with Young Boys over the past two seasons.
Thun are now aiming to follow up their defeat of Palermo by shocking Stoke. The Swiss Super League side will not underestimate the Potters, but believe that with no end of effort combined with the extra sharpness of starting their season in July, there is all to play for.
Fonte: Inside Futbol