While Maltese football fans are hooked on Ħamrun Spartans’ heroics in the UEFA Europa Conference League, another club is set to carry Malta’s flag on the highest stage.
Birkirkara are set to take part in the 2022/2023 UEFA Women’s Champions League as they will launch their campaign with a stern test against Bosnia-Herzegovina’s champions SFK Sarajevo on Thursday morning (kick-off: 10am).
The first qualifying round of this competition consists of mini-groups with four teams each with a semi-final and a final in one venue, guaranteeing each team at least two games.
Birkirkara’s games will be played in Romania, having travelled to the Eastern European country on Tuesday.
Jose Borg’s side will be also in action on Sunday when they will play in a ranking match – whether to qualify to the next round or for the third place, against either Glentoran, of Northern Ireland, and Romania’s Olimpija Cluj.
Last season, the Stripes clinched their 10th domestic title and will be making their sixth straight appearance in this competition.
Despite the recent rise of the Malta women’s national team at international stage, Maltese clubs are still struggling to achieve positive results on a regular basis in the Champions League.
The level of the women’s game across Europe is improving rapidly and a lot of clubs invest heavily to enter this tournament prepared as much as possible.
Nonetheless, for Birkirkara this will be another learning curve and another opportunity to showcase themselves.
They are one of the two Maltese sides to have secured at least a draw in this competition and their recent performances against Romania’s Olimpija Cluj (1-2) and Slovan Bratislava (0-1) are encouraging and bode well for the growth of the local movement.
For Borg, this will be his first experience in this competition as a coach although he had already travelled with Birkirkara as part of their technical staff during their 2020-21 expedition when they faced Cluj, in Romania.
“Our primary ambition in this competition is to record Malta’s first ever win,” Borg told the Times of Malta.
“However, we were pitted against very tough teams including our first opponents SFK Sarajevo who have plenty of experience in this competition and their players are all internationals.
“On the field, we are expecting our opponents to press us high and will be imposing a fast tempo therefore we have to pay a close attention on our defensive phase.
“Nonetheless, my team has been preparing very hard for this movement in the past seven weeks.”
Having analysed their opponents in the competition, coach Borg has worked a lot on the tactical part during the pre-season even though his main concern was the physical level of the players.
“In the past seven weeks we have worked on a lot of aspects, including the physical part because we wanted to get my players into shape as quickly as possible,” Borg admitted.
“Our physical trainer, Nigel McCarthy, has done a brilliant job with the players who have a made huge step from a physical point of view.
“Also, we played a number of friendlies against strong boys’ team which helps us to increase our level of intensity and physicality.”
While the Stripes can bank on their Maltese core which has propelled the club to a clean sweep of domestic successes in recent years, they have strengthened their squad with a host of foreigners.
The Stripes brought two Italian midfielders in Marta Grosso and Gaia Milan who last year played with Nicole Sciberras at Italy’s Tavagnacco, in Serie B.
Moreover, Birkirkara acquired the services of Canadian forward Sofie Iaderosa who has recently been playing her football in Spain and goalkeeper Erin White, formerly of Park View Academy of Sport.
“We brought foreign players to improve the positions where I felt we needed some upgrade,” Borg explained.
“It was not easy to get foreigners due to financial and logistic reasons but finally we managed to assemble a competitive squad in my opinion.
“The Italian players gives us more options in midfield and can help us be more aggressive when we are in possession while our forward, who has been with us for just one week, can help us in hold-up play and transitions.
“Regarding the goalkeeper, she will be with us for the Champions League only, and we needed to have two strong options between the sticks in what will be a tough tournament for us.”
The Champions League will be a perfect introduction for Borg into the women’s game after making the switch from men’s football, for a second spell.
A well-known name in the women’s game, Borg hopes that his appointment at Birkirkara can help both Birkirkara and the general movement to progress just like the rest of Europe.
“I hope that other coaches can follow suit and be involved in the women’s game because the girls deserve to be treated professionally, given also the rise of this movement across the world,” Borg underlined.
“We need more professional coaches in this environment, because that will help in changing the mentality and this is something that can inspire other women’s sports on our shores because sometimes they are given secondary attention even by local authorities.”
Birkirkara’s opponents on Thursday, SFK Sarajevo, are the current champions of Bosnia-Herzegovina.
Their squad is composed of several Bosnia internationals and they are even coached by the Bosnia-Herzegovina’s women’s national team coach as well.
During the pre-season, they played in a high-profile tournament where they defeated Croatian pair Osijek 3-0 and Dinamo Zagreb 2-1.
Throughout their Champions League history, they made it out of the preliminary stage on four occasions including in 2019/2020 when they were eliminated by Chelsea in the round of 32.