Gzira United will be hosting HNK Hajduk Split in the first leg of the UEFA Europa League first qualifying round at the Centenary Stadium on Tuesday, kick-off at 18:00.
This will definitely be a difficult task for the Maroons, considering that the Croatian giants found no difficulty in disposing off their Maltese opponents in previous visits.
In the 1975/76 Champions Cup, Hajduk eliminated Floriana with an 8-0 aggregate score. In the 1982/83 UEFA Cup, they eliminated Zurrieq with an 8-1 aggregate score while in 2008/09, they eliminated Birkirkara with a 7-0 aggregate score in the UEFA Cup.
This summer, Gzira were quite active in the transfer market. They secured the services of Arthur Henrique Oyama, Hamed Koné, Elvis Sakyi, Ridwaru Olatunde Adeyemo and Jefferson Mateus de Assis Estácio. Goalkeeper Jurgen Borg is back with the club together with Christian Sammut and Luca Brincat. On the other hand, Anthony Curmi, Edison Bilbao Zarate, Roderick Briffa and Haruna Garba moved elsewhere.
Giovanni Tedesco has been appointed as their new coach, taking over from Jesmond Zerafa who had replaced Darren Abdilla mid-way through last season.
Addressing the media on Monday, the former Floriana, Birkirkara, Palermo and Hamrun Spartans coach admitted this will be a difficult game for his side.
“Hajduk is a very difficult opponent. Their physical condition is definitely better than ours, considering that their league kicks-off in two weeks’ time and they have played several friendly matches during pre-season.”
Tedesco went on to thank his predecessors, Darren Abdilla and Jesmond Zerafa, saying that it was thanks to them that he was there, leading Gzira in the first qualifying round of the UEFA Europa League. He added that there were several changes in the squad since last season, although the basis of the team is still there. The Gzira coach said he was happy, especially with the Maltese players in the squad.
Asked regarding Tuesday’s game, Tedesco said “Respect yes but we have no fear of our opponents. We have to give our very best. The players need to give their one thousand per cent.”
Captain Andrew Cohen added that the clash with Hajduk will be a very hard game but they players studied their opponents and tried to find the best options on how to approach them as they aim at giving them a good challenge.
Hajduk coach Siniša Orešcanin said that after arriving on Sunday night, the team is trying to get to know the atmosphere. He said that the team is ready but they are respectful of Gzira and that they would not underestimate anyone.
He added that the hot climate would be a disadvantage for both teams as the conditions would be the same for both Hajduk and Gzira. He said he was quite happy with the team’s preparation, satisfied with the team atmosphere and is now fully concentrated on the game.
Hajduk were founded in 1911 and are based in the city of Split. Between the early 1920s and 1940, Hajduk regularly participated in the Kingdom of Yugoslavia national championship. Following World War II and the formation of the Yugoslav league system in 1946, Hajduk went on to spend the entire SFR Yugoslavia period at the top level. The club’s run continued following the breakup of Yugoslavia, as the club joined the Croatian First League in its inaugural season in 1992, never having been relegated from its top tier. They are one of the most successful teams in Croatia and ex-Yugoslavia, having won nine Yugoslav and six Croatian league championships, in addition to nine Yugoslav and six Croatian cup titles and five Croatian super cup titles.
Last year, Hajduk placed joint-third in the league, five points behind runners-up Rijeka and thirty points behind champions Dinamo Zagreb.
In their pre-season, Hajduk played five friendly matches, defeating NK Solin 3-1 and Krylya Sovetov 2-1, losing 0-1 to NK Aluminij and 1-2 to Slask Wroclaw and sharing the spoils in a 1-1 draw with Zorya.
Their best achievement in Europe was reaching the semi-finals of the Cup Winners Cup in 1973 and the UEFA Cup in 1984, losing to Leeds United and Tottenham Hotspur respectively. On five occasions, they reached the quarter-finals – in the Champions Cup in 1976 and 1980, in the Cup Winners Cup in 1978, in the UEFA Cup in 1986 and in the Champions League in 1995.
Last season, they suffered an early exit from the Europa League after being eliminated from the third qualifying round by Steaua Bucharest after eliminating Slavia Sofia in the previous round.
The winner of this two-legged clash would face the winner of the clash between Ventspils (LVA) and Teuta (ALB) in the second qualifying round.