Hibernians host Spartak Trnava of Slovakia while Birkirkara meet Diósgyőri VTK of Hungary as the two teams play the first leg of the UEFA Europa League first qualifying round on Thursday.
At the National Stadium, kick-off at 20:00, the Paolites host Spartak Trnava in a re-run of the Champions Cup clash between the two teams in 1969. On that occasion, Hibs held Spartak in a 2-2 draw at the Gzira Stadium but lost 4-0 away from home.
It will not be an easy task for the Paolites but getting a positive result from this first leg is their main objective. This summer, Hibs lost Ryan Camilleri to Valletta and Obinna Obiefule to Zebbug Rangers while Igor Radusinovic is no longer with the club. However, Rodolfo Soares and Marcelo Dias are back with the club after a loan spell in Lebanon while Equatoguinean defender Rui da Gracia joined the club from Spain. Triston Caruana is also back with the club after spending the last two years on loan with Qormi.
FC Spartak Trnava is one of the most successful clubs in Slovakia, having won both the Czechoslovak First League and the Czechoslovak Cup five times, and reaching the semi-final of the European Cup in 1969 and the quarter-finals in 1973 and 1974. However since the establishment of the Slovak Super Liga, they are yet to claim the championship but finished second in 1996/97. 1997/98 and 2011/12. Their last major honour was the Slovak Cup, they won in 1997/98.
They qualified for this year’s UEFA Europa League after finishing their commitments in third place on 53 points, twenty-two behind champions Slovan Bratislava and ten behind runners-up Trenčín.
Their best run in Europe in recent years was in the UEFA Europa League in 2011/12 when they eliminated FK Zeta of Montenegro, KF Tirana of Albania and PFC Levski Sofia of Bulgaria, only to lose to FC Lokomotiv Moscow of Russia in the play-offs. Apart from meeting Hibernians, in 1997, Spartak Trnava were drawn once again with a local club, meeting Birkirkara in the UEFA Cup. Spartak defeated the Stripes 1-0 at Ta’ Qali and 3-1 at home.
The winner of the two-legged clash between Hibernians and Spartak Trnava will be meeting FC Zestafoni of Georgia.
Meanwhile at the Debrecen Stadion in Debrecen, Diósgyőri VTK host Birkirkara, kick-off at 20:30.
Birkirkara will be aiming for a good result in Hungary which would maintain wide open the chances of securing a place in the second qualifying round where they would meet the winner of the clash between FC Veris Chișinău of Moldova and PFC Litex Lovech of Bulgaria. Against Debrecen, the Stripes seek their third qualification after eliminating Lokomotiv Tbilisi of Georgia in 2001 and Santa Coloma of Andorra in 2010.
Since last summer, the Stripes went through a number of changes in squad. Rowen Muscat, Jhonnattann Benites da Conceicao, Haruna Shola Shodiya and Frank Temile do not feature in the Birkirkara squad. Muscat moved to Dunaujvaros in Hungary while the other players are seeking a move to another club. Justin Haber is also ruled out as he recovers from an injury.
New arrivals at Birkirkara are Spanish goalkeeper Adrian Murcia, Brazilian attacking midfielder Rafael Ledesma and former Valletta midfielder Edmond Agius. On the other hand, Leighton Grech is back with the club after spending the last two years on loan with Qormi.
Diósgyőri VTK are taking part in the UEFA Europa League as losing finalists of the Magyar Kupa when they lost to Újpest FC on penalties. However since the latter did not obtain a UEFA licence, they were replaced by Diósgyőri.
Their best placing in the Hungarian top division was a third place in season 1978/79 season of the Hungarian League. Diósgyőr lifted the Hungarian Cup twice in 1977 and 1980. Last season, they won the Hungarian League Cup – the Ligakupa – after beating Videoton 2-1.
This is only Diósgyőri’s fifth participation in UEFA competitions – the last being participation in the UEFA Intertoto Cup in 1998. Their best run was in the UEFA Cup 1979/80 whey they eliminated Rapid Wien and Dundee United, losing to FC Kaiserslautern. In 1998, Diósgyőri had eliminated Sliema Wanderers from the UEFA Intertoto Cup, beating them 2-0 at home and 3-2 in Malta.
The second legs for both Hibernians and Birkirkara will be played in a week’s time.