Valletta will be aiming for a good performance as they host FC Utrecht in the first leg of the UEFA Europa League second qualifying round at the Hibernians Stadium on Thursday, kick-off at 19:30.
The Citizens reached this stage after defeating SS Folgore of San Marino with a 3-0 aggregate score but know quite well that FC Utrecht are a much stronger side.
Addressing the media on Wednesday, Valletta coach Zoran Popovic admitted that Utrecht are firm favourites.
“Utrecht are favourites but Valletta are not without a chance. We promise our hundred percent and that we will play a good game. We want to give our supporters and the local sporting public a good game to watch.”
“We know we have a chance, how small or big we will see,” added Popovic.
Jonathan Caruana is still suspended while Rowen Muscat, who Popovic described as a very important player, is still recovering from an injury. Roderick Briffa is available but is still not physically fit.
“Despite all this, the team is still strong enough to give our opponents a hard time. We will not only defend. Our philosophy is not to defend with ten players in the penalty area as although like this we would may be lose 2-0, there would be nothing for our supporters to see,” said the Valletta coach.
Popovic is not expected to make changes to the line-up with Henry Bonello, Steve Borg, Ryan Camilleri, Juan Cruz Gill, Santiago Malano, Michael Mifsud, Joseph Zerafa, Claudio Pani, Maxi Velasco, Uchenna Umeh and Romeu Romao.
FC Utrecht coach Erik ten Hag stressed that he is taking Valletta very seriously.
“It took me two years to get back to European football. We want to fight to stay,” said ten Hag.
“Preparation was short but we have a good squad and although the squad is not yet complete, I am confident this is strong enough to do well.”
ten Hag said he will not underestimate Valletta. “I have a lot of experience in Europe, both as a player and a coach – with over 60 matches in Europe. Every opponent is tough.”
The FC Utrecht coach said that he studied Valletta well in the qualifiers against SS Folgore. However he stressed although having all the information about the opponent was important, of greater importance was focussing on his team.
FC Utrecht were founded in 1970 as a merger of three clubs from the city of Utrecht: VV DOS, USV Elinkwijk and Velox, the former of the three having won the national championship in 1958.
FC Utrecht has won the KNVB Cup three times in, 1985, 2003 and 2004 and the Johan Cruijff Shield in 2004. They are the only club outside the Big Three (Ajax, PSV and Feyenoord) that has never been relegated from the top-flight Eredivisie.
In Europe, their best achievement was reaching the group stage of the UEFA Cup in 2004/05 and the UEFA Europa League in 2010/11. The last time they represented the Netherlands in the UEFA Europa League was in 2013/14 when they were eliminated by FC Differdange of Luxembourg with a 4-5 aggregate score.
This is only the fourth time, a Maltese club was drawn with one from the Netherlands. Sparta Rotterdam and NAC Breda eliminated Floriana with 7-1 and 3-1 scores respectively in the Cup Winners Cup in 1966 and 1967 while FC Amsterdam had defeated Hibernians with a 12-0 aggregate score in the Inter-Cities Fairs Cup – the predecessor of the UEFA Cup – in 1974.