Gżira United and Birkirkara are bracing themselves for a tough test in their UEFA Conference League second qualifying round ties when they go up against Croatian side Rijeka and Olimpia Ljubljana, of Slovenia respectively, this evening.
The Maroons, who last week needed a penalty shoot-out to knock out Andorran side Sant Julia, will be hosting Croatian giants Rijeka at the Centenary Stadium this evening (kick-off: 7pm), with their main goal being to try and keep alive the tie ahead of next week’s second leg in Croatia.
“Rijeka are a far stronger side than Sant Julia,” coach Darren Abdilla told the Times of Malta.
“They boast a great history in both Croatian football and the European scene. Last season they finished as runners-up in the Croatian championship and they boast a far bigger budget than us while they operate on a professional basis.
“So that shows you the tough challenge we face in this tie. But we are coming from a good performance in the second leg against Sant Julia and the morale of the players is very good so we are looking forward to the match.
“It seems like the team is gelling well together and although the players know that they have a very tough challenge on their hands they are focused on trying to give their best possible performance to ensure we travel to Croatia with a positive result in our hands.”
Abdilla described Rijeka as a very physical side that are very dangerous when operating in transition.
“Rijeka are very strong physically and are very dangerous when operating on counter attacks,” the former Valletta FC coach said.
“Their players boast great movement without the ball at their feet and they are more advanced than us in terms of preparation as they have already played their first match in the Croatian championship, beating HNK Gorica 2-0 last weekend.
“But we know that this is just the first half of the tie and our goal is to try and get a result that keeps us in the running for qualification ahead of next week’s second leg in Rijeka.
“Obviously it will not be easy but the players have no pressure on their shoulders so we are just going to give it our best shot and hopefully we can hold our own against Rijeka.”
Abdilla is set to be without a key player for today’s first leg as midfielder Nicky Muscat picked up an injury against Sant Julia and is facing a race against time to prove his fitness for the match.
On the other hand, Jackson Mendoza and Maxuell Maia have also picked up slight knocks but are expected to be declared fit for the match.
Meanwhile, Birkirkara FC headed to Slovenia yesterday morning where this evening will play guests to Olimpija Ljubljana.
The Stripes reached the second round of the UEFA Conference League when they battled past San Marino side La Fiorita 2-1 on aggregate.
However, coach Andre Paus will expect his players to step up their game against the Slovenian giants who boast two national titles in 2016 and 2018 and won the country’s cup competition three times in the last four years.
Paus is boosted by the availability of new signing Leandro Aguirre, who moved to the Stripes over the weekend but it remains to be seen whether the Argentine wing back will be included in the starting formation.
Like Gżira, Birkirkara’s main goal today is to try and keep alive the tie ahead of next week’s second leg at the Centenary Stadium.