Following a narrow defeat at Upton Park, Birkirkara host West Ham United in the second leg of the UEFA Europa League second qualifying round at the National Stadium on Thursday, kick-off at 20:45.
In the first leg, the Stripes played their hearts out but were undone by a 90th minute goal by James Tomkins who chested the ball down from close range following a corner from the left. Therefore Birkirkara need to win by at least two goals to go through to the next stage where a clash with Inverness Caledonian Thistle of Scotland or Astra Giurgiu of Romania awaits.
Addressing the media on Wednesday, Birkirkara coach Giovanni Tedesco praised the performance of his players, saying that it was not easy playing in front of over 33,000 spectators and keeping them at bay for long stretches. He said that his objective is to see growth from one game to another. He said that there was improvement from the Ulisses games to the clash at Upton Park and he hopes that it would be the case in the game at Ta’ Qali on Thursday. Considering the team qualities, the main objective is to have the players look towards such games as being the norm and not something extraordinary.
The attendance at the National Stadium is expected to be much larger than the usual amount of spectators who turn out for domestic league matches. Tedesco said the supporters’ backing would definitely be a plus but it is up to the players to show their worth. The heat is another factor which could influence the game as the temperature is expected to reach 29 degrees. However the Birkirkara coach believes that it would affect the two teams in the same way.
Italian striker Fabrizio Miccoli spoke of the warm welcome given by his team mates since joining the club last month. He said he was treated very well and helped him settle in immediately and now hopes that with his contribution, the club could achieve its objectives.
As regards the clash with West Ham, Miccoli said that after playing a good game in the first leg, beating West Ham would be an achievement but stressed that in football anything could happen and although it was difficult, they do have a possibility.
West Ham coach Slaven Bilic said that the score of the first leg was not ideal and hoped to come to Malta for the second leg with at least a two-goal lead. He said he hoped West Ham would score earlier in the game. However he admitted that he was sure it would not be that easy and reminded that his home country’s senior national team – Croatia was held in a 1-1 draw by Malta – at the time when he was coach of the Under-21 side in 2005.
The West Ham coach said the gap is closing but they still start as favourites to reach the next stage.
Bilic is worried about the heat, saying that it was a problem as you cannot get used to this heat. He said that he spoke with his family in Croatia the other week who told him it would be 37 or 38 degrees but said that only when you arrive, you realise it is like a sauna.
“That will be a problem for us. But we are experienced enough and we are good enough that with the greatest respect to the Malta team, we are going to be the ones who dictate the tempo of the game. We should be capable of keeping the ball, not going crazy in terms of running. Because the heat is their advantage, because they live in those weather conditions.”
As regards the first leg, Bilic said he was impressed with Birkirkara’s team organisation and mentioned the two centre-halves (Vukanac and Mazzetti) and the goalkeeper (Haber) as the players who impressed him most. When asked whether he thinks Birkirkara would change their approach to the game, he said he hopes so and said that if Birkirkara go out to press his side, it was up to West Ham whether to allow it or not. He said that he would prefer seeing a more fluid game rather than a one-sided affair.
Figures of over 3,000 West Ham supporters were being mentioned as being due to make the trip to Malta for the game but lack of available flights and what were considered as prohibitive ticket costs meant that just 400 fans made the trip. Slaven Bilic said although he would have loved to see more fans travelling and enjoying themselves, it was still not a bad number.
Winston Reid said playing in Europe was one of the things he always wanted to do and felt he could achieve with this club. He admitted these first few rounds are tough games against teams they were not really used to, but they want to progress and reach the group stage.
For Thursday’s game, the two coaches are not expected to make much changes to the teams which met last week. Tedesco, in fact, is expected to rely once again on Justin Haber in goal, Nikola Vukanac and Mauricio Mazzetti in defence with Zach Muscat and Joseph Zerafa on the flanks, Rowen Muscat, Paul Fenech and Ryan Camenzuli in midfield with Edin Murga, Liliu and Fabrizio Miccoli in attack.
The West Stand A and the North Stand have been sold out and a few remaining tickets at West Stand C will be available only from the clubhouse on Thursday. The remaining South stand tickets will be on sale at the Agenda Bookshops at Mater Dei and the Airport only, and at the Eurosport and McDonald’s outlets in Birkirkara.
The Millenium Stand F will be open and tickets will be selling at €20.