MATHEW WAGNER - Monday, August 25, 2014
Heading into the 2014-2015 Europa League qualifying rounds, expectations weren't too high for Stjarnan, the Icelandic team of American midfielder Pablo Punyed.
Finishing last season in third place in the Icelandic top division, the Pepsideild, Stjarnan simply looked to advance to the second round of qualifying for the tournament, and anything extra was gravy.
Well, Stjarnan has definitely exceeded expectations in its first-ever European campaign, as the team made it to the final qualifying round for the Europa League. Unfortunately for Punyed and Stjarnan, odds aren't in their favor to advance to the group stage after losing the first leg against Inter Milan at home, 3-0.
"The enormity of that is great to take in, but I think that people are more surprised because they don't know much about the Icelandic league," Punyed said. "In the soccer world, it's an unknown club making it far, and I think that's what surprises people."
Well, if the goal was to raise the stature of the Icelandic league, Stjarnan has certainly does so - this year and in seasons past.
The club went viral years ago with its unique goal celebrations, and now, even with seven of those players still contributing to this year's run in both the league, which Stjarnan has never won the league, and in Europe.
In the domestic front, Stjarnan sits in second place, tied with Hafnarfjörður on points but trailing on goal differential. In Europe, the team shocked both Motherwell of Scotland and Lech Poznan of Poland in the second and third rounds of qualifying before drawing Italian giant Inter Milan, 18-time winner of the Serie A and three-time European champion.
Although they knew they were going to be huge underdogs, Punyed said he and his teammates were thrilled to have the opportunity to play such a storied club.
"We were landing on the airplane when we received the news because we were traveling back from Poland, and as soon as the plane touched down, everybody started receiving all these messages," Punyed said. "We celebrated because it's going to be a fantastic game."
There wasn't much celebration after Wednesday's match In Reykjavik, however. Two goals just before and after halftime, along with another late goal, gave Stjarnan a three-goal deficit heading into next week's second leg at San Siro.
It's not like it was a shock result or that the team didn't know the quality of the Italian side, as before the match, the 24-year-old American midfielder watched some film of when Inter squared off with Eintracht Frankfurt in a friendly.
"They have some players whose first touch is fantastic, and 90 percent of the time, they make the right decision," Punyed said. "So, it's really hard to defend against a team who makes the right decision all the time.
"They're a complete team. We know that we have to be at our best at every aspect of our game."
Although his club team probably won't make it to the next level in Europe, the Miami native said it is a dream of his to play in the group stages, and if he had a choice between pulling off a shocker in Italy or winning the Icelandic league, he already has the answer.
"The type of run that we're having is not something you can have every year, but winning the league, you can fight for it every single year." Punyed said. "The Europa League is something special and it brings really, really nice spice to the season."