Sliema Wanderers will be all out to get a positive result as they take on FC Khazar Lankaran in the first leg of the UEFA Europa League first qualifying round at the Centenary Stadium, kick-off at 17:45.
For the Wanderers, this could be considered as a leap in the dark as little is known about the team from Azerbaijan who finished third in the Relegation Pool in the Azerbaijan Premier League and qualified for the UEFA Europa League as losing finalist of the Azerbaijan Cup following a 0-1 defeat to champions Neftçi Baku. Their coach is John Toshack who has a long coaching career with several clubs including Swansea, Sporting Lisbon, Real Sociedad, Real Madrid, Deportivo La Coruna, Besiktas, Saint-Etienne, Catania, Real Murcia and the national teams of Wales and Macedonia.
Khazar Lankaran FK have won the Premier league title once in 2006/07 and the Azerbaijan Cup three times in 2007, 2008 and 2011. They also managed to win the Commonwealth of Independent States Cup – the competition reserved for the former Soviet republics – in 2008.
Khazar has been taking part in European competitions since 2005 but it was only last season, that they managed to reach a second round. In fact, they reached the second qualifying round of the UEFA Europa League after eliminating Kalju Nomme of Estonia but were then eliminated by Lech Poznan of Poland.
The Khazar squad includes several foreign players coming from Brazil, Spain, Romania, Mali, Croatia and Macedonia.
Meanwhile after finishing joint-third in the BOV Premier League with Valletta, Sliema Wanderers are eager to give a good performance in this clash with FC Khazar in order to leave the qualification issue wide open ahead of the second leg which will be played at the City Stadium in Lenkoran on Thursday 11.
Since last season, the Blues had only minimal changes in the squad with the departure of Shaun Bajada and Ian Zammit who were on loan from Valletta, Andrew Decesare, Alain Faccini and Luigi Ruggiero. The only new faces are Trevor Cilia who returns from a loan spell with Floriana and Italian striker Andrea Navarra who however may not be included if his international transfer certificate does not arrive in time.
The Wanderers reached a second round of a UEFA competition on four occasions. In the Cup Winners Cup 1968/69, they eliminated Rumelange of Luxembourg thanks to the away goals rule following a 2-1 away defeat and a 1-0 home win. Three years later, they eliminated IA Akranes of Iceland with a 4-0 aggregate score in the Champions Cup. In 1996, they managed to eliminate Margveti Zestaphoni of Georgia following a 1-3 home defeat and a 3-0 win in Georgia in the UEFA Cup while in 2003, they eliminated Skonto Riga of Latvia in the UEFA Champions League on the away goals rule thanks to a 2-0 win at the Hibernians Ground and a 1-3 defeat in Riga.
In the second qualifying round, the winner of the two-legged tie between Sliema and Khazar will face Maccabi Haifa of Israel – first leg to be played in Israel.
Khazar Lankaran will continue their preparation ahead of the second leg in Malta and are scheduled to play a friendly match against Birkirkara on Saturday at the Sirens Stadium, kick-off at 19:00.