Balzan start their fourth adventure in European football as they host Keşla FK of Azerbaijan in the first leg of the UEFA Europa League first qualifying round at the Centenary Stadium on Thursday, kick-off at 19:00.
After a most disappointing finale last season which saw them lose the championship in the final stages of the BOV Premier League, Balzan will be all out to start the new season on a positive note. The squad went through some changes with the departure of Ivan Janjusevic, Clive Brincat, Bruno Giglio de Oliveira, Ryan Fenech and Paul Fenech. However the team was strengthened with the arrival of Steve Sultana, Dale Camilleri, Neil Frendo, Ricardo Calixto Correa Duarte, Nenad Slivic, Andrija Majdevac and the return of Antonio Mitrev, Sean Cipriott and Lydon Micallef.
Ironically two years ago, Balzan registered their only win so far in Europe when they defeated another team from Azerbaijan, defeating Neftchi 2-1 in Baku. Balzan were still eliminated as they had lost 0-2 at the Hibs Stadium.
Coach Marko Micovic stressed it was very difficult to compare the clash with that against Neftchi, saying that it was part of history.
“We will do our utmost to make a historic step. We are not a team who can threaten Keşla but we will do our best to give them a hard time.”
“After the draw, we started analysing them. We learned their strengths and weaknesses and we will try to exploit their weak points. All of us – players, technical staff, club officials and supporters – believe in this club and squad and all we can promise is that we will do our best,” said Micovic.
As part of the preparation ahead of these UEFA Europa League commitments, Balzan went for a training camp in Slovenia last month, playing two friendly matches against NK Rijeka of Slovenia and Vardar Skopje of Macedonia. Balzan lost 1-2 to Rijeka but defeated Vardar 4-2.
“We played two friendlies against two big clubs – Rijeka and Vardar – who both reached group stage of Europa League last year. I am happy with the performance of my players in these two games. However friendlies are one thing, competitive matches are another. But still, that was an example of how are we going to try to play against Keşla,” added the Balzan coach.
Sporting Director Vladimir Simovic said that the Azerbaijan Premier League is ranked 22nd in Europa and the Maltese Premier League 44th.
“This shows clearly who is the favourite in these two matches. However we will do our best to surprise them and hopefully reach a historic milestone for the club.”
As regards the new signings, coach Marko Micovic said that new signings would take time to settle down, especially in the case of players joining the club from ‘smaller’ clubs.
On the other hand, with regards to the players who left the club, Vladimir Simovic said that Paul Fenech was a key player but the club thought that his transfer to Birkirkara was a good deal while in the case of Ryan Fenech, he was a very good player but unfortunately could never give his best for the club due to injuries.
“In the Europa League, we could field an unlimited number of foreigners and therefore could replace these key players with experienced foreigners.”
With regards to the possibility of further signings this summer, Simovic said “Right now we are focused on these two games. Depending on the outcome, we would decide whether we would strengthen the squad further. We still have time until end of August.”
Meanwhile captain Steve Bezzina said that although the squad has been strengthened, the basis of the squad is still there.
“We could draw a lot of positive aspects from the friendlies and the training camp in Slovenia. After a one month break, this is the new season. We learned from past mistakes but we have to look forward starting from these two games with Keşla,” said Bezzina.
Balzan’s opponents, Keşla FK, formerly known as Khazar University and Inter Baku, are based in Keshla – a municipality in the capital city of Baku, Azerbaijan. The club have won the Premier League title two times – 2007/08 and 2009/10. Last season, they placed sixth but won the Cup after defeating Gabala 1-0 in the final.
They have been taking part in UEFA competitions for the last fourteen years. They reached the second round of the Intertoto Cup in 2004 after eliminated Bregenz but lost to Tampere United. In 2008/09, they eliminated Rabotnicki from the first qualifying round of the UEFA Champions League but were eliminated by Partizan Belgrade. The following season, they had an early exit from the Europa League after losing to Spartak Trnava in the second qualifying round. Same thing happened the following season as they were eliminated by Lech Poznan from the UEFA Champions League second qualifying round. In 2012/13, they eliminated Narva Trans in the first round of the Europa League but were eliminated by Asteras Tripoli. In the Europa League 2013/14, they eliminated IFK Mariehamn but lost to Tromso and the following season, they eliminated FC Tiraspol but lost to IF Elfsborg.
Their best performance was in season 2015/16 when they eliminated Laci and FH from the first two qualifying rounds of the Europa League but were eliminated by Athletic Bilbao in the third round. Last season, they eliminated Mladost Lucani from the first qualifying round of the UEFA Europa League but were then eliminated by Fola Esch.
Should Balzan eliminate Keşla FK, they would face Milsami Orhei of Moldova or Slovan Bratislava of Slovakia in the second qualifying round of the UEFA Europa League.