Armenian and Romanian champions FC Pyunik and CFR Cluj begin their Champions League campaigns with Tuesday’s first-round qualifying first leg at the Republican Stadium after Vazgen Sargsyan.
The hosts won their 15th Armenian top-flight title last season, while Cluj were crowned top dogs in Romania for the fifth season in a row.
Prior to the 2021-22 season, Pyunik had failed to clinch the Armenian top-flight title since 2015, with seven years of Alashkert and Ararat-Armenia dominance bedevilling them before a stellar campaign under the tutelage of Melikyan.
Despite being forced to settle for a 1-1 draw on the final day of the season versus Alashkert, Pyunik won their 15th Armenian Premier League crown with a point to spare and now set out to enjoy a respectable run in the embryonic Champions League stages.
Pyunik have managed to make it as far as the third qualifying round in the Europa League but have never advanced past round two of Champions League qualifying, with Molde the last team to send them packing 5-1 on aggregate in that stage in 2015.
The Academy ended the 2021-22 season with a remarkable 17-game unbeaten streak under their belts, including eight wins from nine at home since the turn of the year, but the European pedigree of Cluj far outweighs that of their fellow national champions.
Dan Petrescu’s side were the dominant force in the 2021-22 Romanian top flight regular season, finishing with 76 points and holding off the threat of FCSB in the playoff round to win their fifth consecutive top-division title and their eighth overall.
Cluj have already taken part in four friendlies this summer – winning all four with four clean sheets in tow – and unlike their upcoming opponents, they have experienced the taste of Champions League group-stage football on three occasions.
The Romanian champions got as far as the third qualifying round last year before they were sent packing by BSC Young Boys, and they have never lost in the first round of Champions League qualifying before, but a Super Cup showdown with Sepsi is sandwiched in between their two-legged affair with Pyunik.
showdown will mark the inaugural meeting between Pyunik and Cluj in any competition, but the visitors have previously faced Armenian competition in Alashkert in 2018-19 Europa League qualifying and came out on top by an aggregate score of 7-0.
FC Pyunik have already been dealt a hammer blow in the transfer market, as last season’s top scorer Serges Deble – who hit 22 goals in the top flight – has moved on to Tobol Kostanay in Kazakhstan.
Fellow attacker Hugo Firmino has also said his final goodbyes after hitting 16 goals in the division, while eight-goal Colombian Jose Caraballo is now a free agent.
Much of the attacking responsibility is therefore set to fall onto the shoulders of Yusuf Otubanjo, who has made the switch on a free transfer from direct rivals Ararat.
In contrast, Cluj have retained their star striker in Croatia’s Gabriel Debeljuh, who is set to lead the line after hitting 14 goals in league action last season.
Petrescu has also expressed his belief that 36-year-old Ciprian Deac will continue into his 40s, and the veteran will also expect to form a part of the attacking line here.
FC Pyunik possible starting lineup:
Buchnev; Gonzalez, Vakulenko, Bratkov, Gajic, Juninho; Davidyan, Cociuc, Gareginyan, Dashyan; Otubanjo
CFR Cluj possible starting lineup:
Balgradean; Braun, Burca, Matias, Brucic; Boateng, Cvek; Paun, Deac, Petrila; Debeljuh