Ambitious Krasnodar eye Champions League debut

By Dmitriy Rogovitskiy

MOSCOW, May 6 (Reuters) - Russia's FC Krasnodar could be Champions League debutants next season with the club that was formed only seven years ago on the cusp of joining the big time thanks to the backing of billionaire owner Sergei Galitsky.

Hailing from the south of Russia, the team known as the Bulls are second in the Russian top flight behind Zenit St Petersburg with four games remaining, having won seven and drawn two matches since the winter break.

If they maintain that position -- they trail Zenit by six points but have a four-point cushion over third-placed CSKA Moscow -- Krasnodar will go into the third qualifying round of the League Route into Europe's premier club competition.

"If we keep playing to the same level that we have showed against the teams from Moscow, then we can achieve this. For Krasnodar, this would be a historical moment," Uruguayan midfielder Mauricio Pereyra, the team's leading scorer in the Russian championship with eight goals, told Reuters.

"Everyone who plays for Krasnodar is ambitious and wants to reach the maximum level possible. In order to make sure we come second and book our place in the Champions League, we need to win three out of the remaining four matches."

Krasnodar have already had their first taste of European competition, featuring in the Europa League group stage this season -- finishing third in Group H -- and will in a few months move into a new 36,000 seat stadium having been ground-sharing with local rivals Kuban.

Galitsky, owner of the Magnit supermarket chain which has about 10,000 stores across the country, and according to Forbes Magazine the 13th richest person in Russia with a fortune of $10.3 billion, has well and truly put Krasnodar on the map.

"Galitsky is a person who gives everything to the club," said Pereyra, 25. "He's a very busy person, but he always gives a lot of attention to his players, coaches and medical staff. The president is always anxious about the way the team are playing."

SURPRISE CHALLENGE

Unlike Zenit, there are no headline names in the Krasnodar team but Pereyra said unity and spirit was the key to their surprise title challenge.

"We have some big players, like Marat Izmailov, who is on loan from Porto. Our captain, Andreas Granqvist is a defender for the Swedish national team.

"We have a number of players with individual ability, who are technically gifted. However, the most important thing is we are a team. We are strong as a group."

In charge of the Bulls is 49-year-old Belarusian head coach Oleg Kononov who took over in August 2013 after a number of years working in Ukraine.

"He is very good at what he does," said Pereyra, who used to play for Nacional Montevideo in his homeland and Lanus in Argentina, before he made the move to Russia.

"The coach wants us to keep the ball on the floor and play a short passing game. He wants us to play a high tempo pressing game even when we are playing away from home." (Editing by Justin Palmer)

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