A date with history awaits Hibernians as they look to write an unprecedented chapter in Maltese football tonight.
The Paolites host Riga FC of Latvia in the second leg of the third qualifying round of the newly-launched UEFA Europa Conference League as they vie for a place in the play-offs.
Never has a Maltese team managed to reach the play-off stage of a UEFA club competition, despite reaching the third qualifying round on four occasions.
Birkirkara and Valletta were the first two teams to advance to this stage but their runs were halted by high-calibre clubs like Russia’s Krasnodar and Astana, of Kazakhstan, whereas last season, Floriana succumbed to a heartbreaking elimination after a penalty shoot-out defeat against Flora Tallinn, of Estonia.
Incidentally, Flora Tallinn were also Hibernians’ first opponents this season in the UEFA Champions League.
After dropping into the Conference League, Hibernians eliminated Folgore, of San Marino, before upsetting Riga in Latvia in the first leg, last week.
Should Hibernians advance from this round, they will meet Lincoln Red Imps of Gibraltar which would mean that a team from either Malta or Gibraltar will be making it into the group stages of a UEFA competition.
Coach Stefano Sanderra was pleased to see his team improve its performances game after game, despite a long absence from the football fields due to the coronavirus pandemic that halted domestic football in March.
From a 5-0 aggregate defeat to Flora Tallinn to a 1-0 victory in Latvia, highlighting the confidence that the Paolites have built in such a short span of time during their European journey.
“It was not easy to prepare for these European games given that we had stopped in March and we have to prepare in these hot temperatures that the summer in Malta always provides,” Sanderra told the Times of Malta.
“Moreover, when you are drawn with teams that are already midway through their domestic campaign makes it even more difficult for us to match their intensity.
“Nonetheless, the team has been training well and have stepped up its level game after game.”
For Sanderra, there is no need to put extra pressure on his players on this game as what it means to Maltese football is already sufficient to help them self-motivate.
“It is a very important game for Hibernians and for Maltese football,” Sanderra said.
“We have an appointment with history and we know what’s at stake.
“It is a pity that we will play in front of a limited capacity because a game of such importance would have deserved more fans but we are still happy to play in front of our supporters.”
For tonight’s game, Sanderra is still not sure about his starting formation.
Guinea goalkeeper Ibrahim Kone and defender Ferdinando Apap will be undergoing a late fitness test to determine their availability. Both players were forced to be subbed due to injuries in the first leg.
Sanderra is expecting a very tough game as Riga will feel they are very much still in the game, needing to just score one goal to level the tie and at least force extra-time.
“Riga are a very difficult side to meet and we are aware that this second leg will be a harder test than last week,” the Italian tactician explained.
Riga eyeing qualification
The Latvian champions have already reached the play-off stage once, in the 2019-20 season when they were dumped out by Denmark’s Copenhagen in the UEFA Europa League.
Having never reached the group stages of a UEFA competition, the Europa Conference League can be a golden opportunity for them to write history for their club.
The three-time Latvian champions are heading to their biggest two games of the season as after the Hibernians tie which will determine their European fate, they will face league leaders Rigas FS in the weekend. They currently sit second, trailing by two points while having played a couple of fixtures more than leaders Rigas FS.
They are at the back of progression to the quarter-finals of the Latvian Cup and are keen to turn the tide in their favour in Europe as well.