Champions Valletta will be aiming to secure a spot in the third qualifying round of the UEFA Europa League as they host HSK Zrinjski Mostar in the second leg of the second qualifying round champions path at the Centenary Stadium on Thursday, kick-off at 18:00.
The Citizens remain unbeaten in their UEFA Europa League campaign thanks to a goalless draw in Kukës and a 1-1 draw at Ta’ Qali in the games against FK Kukësi of Albania and the 1-1 draw in Mostar last week. All they need on Thursday is avoid conceding a goal. Otherwise they have to win in order to qualify and set a third qualifying round clash with Bulgarian champions PFC Ludogorets Razgrad. Ludogorets were eliminated from the UEFA Champions League on Wednesday after losing 0-1 on aggregate to Vidi FC of Hungary.
Addressing the media on Wednesday, Valletta coach Danilo Doncic said that if Valletta manage to play “a very good game”, they can make it to the next round.
“Against Kukësi, we were a much better team but conceded a goal and were eliminated. Against Zrinjski, who are a much better team, we showed we can give them a hard time. I am satisfied with the three games played so far. The only missing thing was a bit of luck in the first two games against Kukësi,” said Doncic.
Although HSK Zrinjski are considered a better side, the Valletta coach said his players had the necessary experience.
“The team is mature. We have national team players and foreign players who are used to such games. The experience is there … with one clever approach, we can do it.”
“We will try not to concede a goal. We have players who can be dangerous up front. In the last seven months, we conceded far less goals than the other top teams, like Balzan, Gzira and Birkirkara, and so far we just conceded two goals against the foreign opponents.”
When asked whether he believed Valletta would go far in their European campaign, Doncic admitted he was not too confident.
“To be honest, I was a bit sceptic due to the pre-season. This kind of preparation – when you have to struggle to find teams to play friendly matches against – was not enough. However so far, we showed that the team is mature. The players are playing together showing we are a strong team.”
Last year, Valletta scored fewer goals than the other teams in the top six places and this summer, they signed Mario Fontanella from eternal rivals Floriana. Fontanella notched the equaliser in Mostar last week.
“We had a problem with scoring goals … we missed a lot of chances. We played attacking football but goals were not coming. He is a very good player and is doing the duties required from him.”
Doncic would not be able to field his best formation as Enmy Pena Beltre has not recovered fully although he could be on the bench. Steve Borg, who had to be substituted during the first leg, on the other hand, should be named in the starting line-up.
Meanwhile HSK Zrinjski coach Ante Miše said he was expecting a very difficult game, saying he is worried mainly about the artificial turf pitch – something they are not used to.
“The result was not good for us. We missed two or three good chances and they scored a very important goal.”
HSK Zrinjski, champions of Bosnia Herzegovina for the past three years, were eliminated from the UEFA Champions League after losing 1-2 on aggregate to Spartak Trnava. However in the first two matches of the Premijer Liga, they defeated Sloboda Tuzla 1-0 and GOSK Gabela 3-1.
“When playing in Europe, you are playing against good teams. When you miss, you are punished. In the league, it’s another thing. If you score one or two, you win.”
“We are prepared for each case – even extra-time and penalties – but hope to score the goals to make it to the next stage,” added the Zrinjski coach.
Ante Miše, who was assistant coach of Hajduk Split when they faced Birkirkara in 2008 and assistant coach of Croatia when they faced Malta in 2015, waAnte Mišes not surprised with Valletta.
“We scouted them and saw a good team. They have good defending and dangerous players in Piciollo, Malano and Fontanella.”
When asked whether the weather will affect his team, Ante Miše said that the climate was the same in Mostar and that the only problem is having to play on an artificial pitch.