Difficult tests for Birkirkara and Hibernians away from home

Birkirkara and Hibernians will be in action on Thursday as they take on NK Široki Brijeg of Bosnia-Herzegovina and FC Spartak Trnava of Slovakia respectively.

The Stripes face Široki Brijeg at the Stadion Pecara, kick-off at 20:00 while the Paolites face Spartak Trnava at the Štadión Antona Malatinského in Trnava, kick-off at 20:15.

After confirming coach Drazen Besek, Birkirkara secured the services of Serbian duo Predrag Jovic and Srdjan Dimitrov while Andreas Vella and Shaun Bajada joined the club from Qormi and Ghajnsielem respectively. Matteo Desira Buttigieg and Marcelina Emerson return with the club after loan spells with St. Andrews and Floriana. Goran Mujanovic, Mislav Andelkovic and Matija Smrekar, who had all joined the club in January, moved elsewhere.

NK Široki Brijeg is a Bosnian Croat 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.

Meanwhile Hibernians welcomed back Johann Bezzina and Jean Paul Farrugia and secured the services of Malta international goalkeeper Andrew Hogg and foreigners Renan Telles Pimenta and Juan Manuel Varea. Gilmar, on the other hand, is no longer with the club after spending last season on loan from Naxxar Lions.

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.