Ħamrun Spartans head into their UEFA Conference League first-leg tie against Bulgarian side Levski Sofia on Thursdsay (kick-off: 7.30pm) in a week which sees a record number of Maltese clubs having progressed this far into European qualifiers.
Speaking to the Times of Malta ahead of the match which will be played at the Ta’ Qali National Stadium, Spartans coach Branko Nisevic said it was a belief that the local clubs had, and it can only get better.
“No doubt, we achieved a milestone in local football and obviously we are all happy that something like this happened,” Nisevic said.
“We all believed it will happen sooner or later because the clubs are changing. We have a more professional set-up and there’s quality and so what we needed is just an injection like this.
“Personally, I think that very soon, maybe not this year but in one or two years, we may have a local club in the group stages of this competition. That will be a great boost for football and the name of this country, and maybe after this we get to see more Maltese players going abroad and playing in a better way.”
Facing 26-time Bulgaria champions Levski, Nisevic will have a full squad at his disposal, with the addition of the club’s new signing Luke Montebello.
Asked about whether Montebello will be in the plans for Thursday’s match, the Spartans coach remarked that there is still work to do before the former Birkirkara striker is up to the level of the rest of the team.
“All the players who were available for last match are available for this one. The only change in our squad is that we now have Luke Montebello in our squad,” he said.
“(Montebello) just arrived and with Birkirkara he only had a pre-season of two or three weeks. So generally speaking, he is not match-fit to start so we need to see as we go along. He’s not at the level of the rest of the players who have had already four international matches this summer and three friendlies, but we will give him more time to get him fit as soon as possible.”
The Sofia side have played their first two league matches, winning one and losing the other, however, they were on form to eliminate Greek side PAOK in the second qualifying round in the Conference League.
“We cannot judge them on their start to the league because they have had only two matches and the PAOK games. The game that they lost in the league, they played well so there is no doubt they are a very good team,” Nisevic explained.
“Against PAOK, they were impressive, and they are mostly made of young players. They have some experienced ones too and they are very compact – they fully deserved to eliminate PAOK.
“There is no doubt we are going to face a very good team – if I were to rank them against Alashkert and Velez, Levski are by far a better team.
“We are playing a team which won the league 26 times in Bulgaria so it’s a big club with big support.
“What we can do is try to repeat our performance from our last games. If we manage to perform similarly, at home we can achieve a positive result that will keep the tie open.
“Against Alashkert, physically we were better, then when we faced Velez who were quite good, and it was harder. Now against Levski, physically and on individual level they are one level up.
“What we can do is two things – whenever possible we need to defend high because we don’t want to end up defending in our box and second, it’s crucial that we try to control the ball as much as possible because we have technical players and we have managed to do it before so it’s kind of our blueprint now.
“If we can impose possession a bit longer, the more we have the chance to create in attack.”
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