Balzan FC will be playing their maiden game in Europe as they host FK Željezničar of Bosnia and Herzegovina in the first leg of the UEFA Europa League first qualfiying round at the Hibernians Stadium on Tuesday, kick-off at 17:45.
This historic qualification for a place in the UEFA Europa League for Balzan is the result of the fourth place obtained by Oliver Spiteri’s side last season, just one point behind Birkirkara and five behind runners-up Valletta.
A few days after the end of the season, Balzan were quick to secure the services of Valletta and Malta international midfielder Ryan Fenech, followed by Floriana goalkeeper Valerio Senatore. On the other hand, Oscar Guerrero and goalkeeper Steve Sultana were not retained while Jean Pierre Mifsud Triganza returned with Valletta after a one-year loan.
Balzan’s opponents on Tuesday, Fudbalski klub Željezničar, is the most successful football team in Bosnia, having won six Bosnian championships, five Bosnian Cups and two Bosnian Super Cups.
During the time of the former Yugoslavia, FK Željezničar were national champions once in the 1971–72 season. In Europe, the club is most famous for reaching both the UEFA Cup semi-finals during the 1984/85 season and the quarter-finals during the 1971/72 season. Their best achievements in Europe in recent years were qualifying for the third qualifying round of the UEFA Champions League in 2002/03 and the UEFA Europa League in 2011/12 when they were eliminated by Newcastle and Maccabi Tel Aviv respectively.
Last season, Željezničar took the runner-up spot in the Premier Liga, finishing three points behind champions FK Sarajevo.
Addressing the media on Monday, Balzan coach Oliver Spiteri admitted FK Željezničar are a very strong side who just missed out on the championship in the final stages.
Spiteri said that Balzan would be aiming for a good performance on Tuesday. He said preparation for these matches was not ideal since players hardly had a three-week break after the end of the past Premier League campaign.
The Balzan coach will not have the full squad at his disposal. In fact, Bojan Kaljevic is nursing an injury while Ryan Fenech is unavailable as he serves a one-match ban after being sent off in Valletta’s UEFA Champions League qualifier against Qarabagh last season. Italian striker Gianmarco Piccioni is currently on trial in Poland and therefore although he is still on the books of Balzan, he will not be available to play against Željezničar.
Oliver Spiteri said he has huge respect for the Bosnian side but stressed that towards the end of last season, Balzan always had to deal with the absence of one or more players. He stressed that only the players who were physically hundred per cent would start the game and that he was sure that the players would be doing their best. Experience plays an important role at this level but Spiteri said that his players have big thirst and sometimes this thirst is stronger and makes up for the lack of experience.
Despite the strength of the opponents, the Balzan coach will not resort to defending. He said that as it was the case last season, Balzan would be trying to play their game. Spiteri maintained that in football, one has to play one’s game – trying not to concede any goals while trying to score.
On Sunday, Balzan unveiled two new signings, Godwin Mensha and Aleksandar Vujcic but since UEFA allows only one change to the squad, submitted last week, Mensha will be included in the squad for this two-legged clash with Željezničar. However he could only make his debut for Balzan on Tuesday if the club receives the international transfer certificate in time.
Balzan president Anton Tagliaferro revealed that more signings could be on the way as he stressed that there are two months left to prepare for the league campaign, providing ample time to strengthen further the squad. However he stressed that he was pretty happy with the squad.
Asked about the objectives for the coming season, Tagliaferro said that in life one always tries to do better but one had to be realistic as other clubs have also strengthened their squads.
Although FK Željezničar will meeting a Maltese club for the first time in a UEFA competition, their city rivals, FK Sarajevo, had eliminated two Maltese clubs, Marsaxlokk and Hibernians in recent years.
The return leg will be played in Sarajevo on July 9.