After eliminating UE Sant Julià with a 4-1 aggregate score, Gzira United take on Radnički Niš in the first leg of the UEFA Europa League first qualifying round at the Stadion Čair in Niš on Thursday, kick-off at 21:00.
Reaching this stage was already an important achievement for the Maroons who made their return to European football after an absence of forty five years thanks to a third place finish last season. In Serbia, Gzira United will be aiming at making life difficult for their opponents who are also making their return to European football after a long period of time – thirty five years – after placing third in the Serbian SuperLiga.
Although the strength of Serbian clubs is known to all, Maltese clubs did obtain prestigious results against Serbian opposition in recent years, considering Valletta’s two 1-2 defeats to Red Star in 2016 and Floriana’s 3-3 draw also with Red Star last year.
Coach Darren Abdilla is not expected to make any changes to the team which came from behind to defeat Sant Julià 2-1 at the Centenary Stadium last week, therefore relying on the experience of players like Justin Haber, Roderick Briffa, Rodolfo Soares, Tommy Veronese, Edison Bilbao Zarate, Andrew Cohen and Amadou Samb.
Fudbalski klub Radnički, commonly known as Radnički Niš, are based in Niš. Radnički Niš was one of the most stable clubs in the former Yugoslavia. The team spent a total of 29 years in the Yugoslav First League, achieving third place in 1980 and 1981. Last season, they also placed third in the Serbian SuperLiga – their best achievement in decades.
The club’s Golden Era was in the early eighties. In 1980, Radnički finished the national championship in 3rd place and qualified for the first time for the UEFA Cup. They eliminated LASK Linz and Beroe Stara Zagora but were eliminated by AZ Alkmaar in the last sixteen. In 1981, the club was again third and qualified for the UEFA Cup. In the first round, Radnički Niš were drawn against Napoli. In the first leg, the club from South Serbia achieved a 2–2 draw in front of 70,000 spectators at Stadio San Paolo, which was enough for Radnički to progress after a goalless match in Serbia because of the away goals rule. Radnički went on to eliminate Grasshopper Club Zürich, Feyenoord and Dundee United 3-2 and then faced top German club Hamburger SV in the semi-finals but after a 2–1 win in Niš, they lost the second leg in Hamburg 5–1. After one year of absence from international football, the club qualified for the 1983/84 UEFA Cup season and reached the round of sixteen. They eliminated St Gallen and FK Inter Bratislava but were eliminated by Hajduk Split.
Radnički Niš played a total of 22 matches across Europe between 1981 and 1984. During this time, Radnički lost only one UEFA Cup home match of a total of 11 across three seasons. They had also won the Balkans Cup in 1975.
In 2000/01, Radnički were relegated and although they made a quick return to the top division, they were relegated once again in 2002/03. It was only in 2011/12 that they won promotion to the Serbian SuperLiga after winning the Serbian First League. Since then, Radnički have established themselves once again in the SuperLiga with this year’s third place being their best placing.
The winner of the two-legged tie between Gzira and Radnički will meet Ferencváros of Hungary or Maccabi Tel-Aviv of Israel in the second qualifying round.