The three clubs representing Malta in the UEFA Europa League were drawn with opponents from Eastern countries in the first qualifying round of the UEFA Europa League as the draws were held in Nyon on Monday.
Hibernians were drawn once again with Spartak Trnava of Slovakia, Balzan with Neftçi of Azerbaijan while Birkirkara were paired with Široki Brijeg of Bosnia-Herzegovina. The three teams were drawn to play the first leg away from home but at least one of these fixtures would be switched. The first legs are scheduled for June 30 and the second legs for July 7.
In the second qualifying round of the UEFA Europa League, the winner of the clash FC Dila Gori (Georgia) vs FC Shirak (Armenia) will face Spartak Trnava or Hibernians; Balzan or Neftçi will meet KF Shkendija (FYR Macedonia) or MKS Cracovia Krakow (Poland) in the second qualifying round while Birkirkara or Široki Brijeg will take on the winner of the clash between FC Infonet (Estonia) or Heart of Midlothian (Scotland).
Spartak Trnava vs Hibernians
FC Spartak Trnava is one of the most successful clubs in Slovakia, having won both the Czechoslovak First League and the Czechoslovak Cup five times, and reaching the semi-final of the European Cup in 1969 and the quarter-finals in 1973 and 1974. However since the establishment of the Slovak Super Liga, they are yet to claim the championship but finished second in 1996/97, 1997/98 and 2011/12. Their last major honour was the Slovak Cup, they won in 1997/98.
They qualified for this year’s UEFA Europa League after finishing their commitments in fourth place, twenty-seven points behind champions AS Trenčín.
This will be Spartak Trnava’s third clash with Hibernians. In 1969, they eliminated Hibernians with a 6-2 aggregate score from the first qualifying round of the Champions Cup while in 2014, they defeated the Paolites with a 9-2 aggregate score in the first qualifying round of the UEFA Europa League. In 1997, they eliminated Birkirkara from the UEFA Cup, with a 4-1 aggregate score.
Their best runs in Europe in recent years were in the UEFA Europa League in 2011/12 when they eliminated FK Zeta of Montenegro, KF Tirana of Albania and PFC Levski Sofia of Bulgaria, only to lose to FC Lokomotiv Moscow of Russia in the play-offs and then in 2014/15 when they eliminated Hibernians, FC Zestafoni of Georgia and St. Johnstone of Scotland, only to lost to FC Zürich of Switzerland.
Hibernians qualified for a further round of a UEFA competition on two occasions. In 1971, they eliminated Fram Reykjavik of Iceland with a 3-2 aggregate score in the qualifying round of the Cup Winners Cup while in 2022, they eliminated Shelbourne of Ireland with a 3-2 aggregate score in the first qualifying round of the Champions League. Last season, they were eliminated by Maccabi Tel-Aviv after winning 2-1 at the Hibs Stadium and losing 1-5 in Tel-Aviv in the first qualifying round of the UEFA Champions League.
NK Široki Brijeg vs Birkirkara
NK Široki Brijeg is a Bosnian Croat professional football club based in Široki Brijeg, Bosnia and Herzegovina that currently plays in the Premier League of Bosnia and Herzegovina.
The club was established in spring 1948, but due to many circumstances, some of them including unfavourable conditions towards the town of Široki Brijeg during the communist rule and relative size of it then, NK Široki Brijeg has experienced its greatest successes in the 1990s and onwards, and has become one of the most successful and organized clubs in Bosnia and Herzegovina today. They won the Premier League of Bosnia and Herzegovina twice, finished twice as runners-up and the Bosnia and Herzegovina Football Cup twice.
Like Birkirkara, NK Široki Brijeg has been taking part regularly in UEFA competitions since season 2002/03. Their best run was in the UEFA Cup 2005/06 when they reached the first round proper of the UEFA Cup after defeating Teuta of Albania and Zeta of Serbia & Montenegro. Only twice, they failed to make it to a second round in a UEFA competition.
Birkirkara have been participating regularly in UEFA competitions since making their debut in 1997. They qualified for a further round on three occasions, eliminating Lokomotiv Tbilisi of Georgia in the qualifying round of the UEFA Cup in 2001 on the away goals rule, FC Santa Coloma of Andorra with a 7-3 aggregate score in the Champions League in 2010 and Ulisses of Armenia 3-1 in the Europa League last season. Birkirkara were then eliminated by West Ham on penalties.
Neftçi PFC Baki vs Balzan
Neftçi PFC Baki is an Azerbaijani football club based in the capital, Baku, that currently plays in the Azerbaijan Premier League. Founded in 1937, the club has won 8 Azerbaijan Premier League, 6 Azerbaijan Cup and 2 Azerbaijan Supercup titles. The club is one of the two teams in Azerbaijan, along with Qarabağ which has participated in all Azerbaijan Premier League championships so far.
In 2012, Neftçi Baku became the first Azerbaijani team to advance to the group stage of a European competition, beating APOEL of Cyprus 4–2 on aggregate in the play-off round of the 2012–13 UEFA Europa League.
Neftçi finished sixth with 49 points from 36 matches, thirty-five behind champions Qarabağ. They lost the Cup final 0-1 after extra-time to Qarabağ. However they are representing Azerbaijan in the Europa League as Zira did not obtain a UEFA licence and İnter Bakı are banned.
This will be Balzan’s second participation in UEFA competitions after being eliminated from the UEFA Europa League first qualifying round, losing 0-3 on aggregate.