Europa League: Hibernians host Shakhtyor Soligorsk; difficult tasks for Balzan, Gzira United

Hibernians, Balzan and Gzira United will be in action on Thursday in the second legs of the UEFA Europa League first qualifying round.

At the Centenary Stadium, kick-off at 20:00, Hibernians host Shakhtyor Soligorsk of Belarus.

The narrow defeat in Soligorsk leaves wide open the chance for the Paolites to move on to the next stage where they would face Esbjerg fB of Denmark. Valeri Gromyko scored the all-important goal on the 69th minute.

With a 1-0 win, they would only force extra-time and therefore, they need to win by a two-goal difference to make it to the next stage.

The Paolites managed to qualify for a second round twice – eliminating Shelbourne with a 3-2 aggregate score from the UEFA Champions League in 2002 and FCI Tallinn of Estonia with a 3-0 aggregate score from the UEFA Champions League in 2017.

In their only clash with a team from Belarus, back in 1994, Hibernians lost 3-1 to Dinamo Minsk in the first leg away from home but in the second leg, they won 3-1 at Ta’ Qali to force extra-time, winning 4-3 but being eliminated with a 6-5 aggregate score.

At the Stadion Poljud in Split, kick-off at 20:00, HNK Hajduk Split of Croatia start as firm favourites to set up a clash with Ventspils of Latvia or Teuta of Albania. Ventspils won the first leg 3-0.

Hajduk defeated Gzira 2-0 thanks to goals by Gyurcsó on the 44th and Dolček on the 96th minute. A harsh result on the Maroons although Hajduk were a better side.

In Split, Giovanni Tedesco’s side will be all out to put on a positive performance and make life difficult for their opponents.

Hajduk had already eliminated three Maltese clubs in UEFA competitions. In the 1975/76 European Cup (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.

On the other hand, at the Športni park in Domzale, kick-off at 20:45, Balzan face NK Domžale of Slovenia.

A 4-3 win at the Centenary Stadium gives the Slovenian side an edge over Balzan. An Ibričić penalty on the 5th minute put the visitors ahead but Balzan turned the score in their favour thanks to goals by Ricardo Correa on the 34th and Uros Ljubomirac four minutes later. Vuk levelled matters for Domžale four minutes in the second half but Alfred Effiong made it 3-2 for Balzan on the 56th. However Sikošek equalised five minutes later and Podlogar made it 4-3 on the 76th.

Balzan therefore need to win by a two-goal difference to make it to the next stage.

In four clashes between teams from Malta and Slovenia, the latter prevailed as NK Primorje deliminated Marsaxlokk from the UEFA Cup in 2004, NK Maribor eliminated Birkirkara in 2007 and ND Gorica eliminated Hibernians from the Intertoto Cup while NK Maribor eliminated Birkirkara from the UEFA Champions League in 2013.

Domžale’s best achievement in UEFA competitions was reaching the Play-Offs of the UEFA Europa League in 2017/18 after eliminating Flora Tallinn, Valur and SC Freiburg but were eliminated by Marseille. Balzan, on the other hand, qualified for the second qualifying round of the UEFA Europa League last season after eliminating Keşla FK of Azerbaijan with a 5-3 aggregate score.

In the second qualifying round, the winner would be facing Swedish giants Malmö as they hold a comfortable 7-0 lead over Ballymena United after the first leg.