After eliminating Hajduk Split of Croatia from the first qualifying round of the UEFA Europa League thanks to an impressive 3-1 win away from home, Gzira United hope to continue where they have left as they take on FK Ventspils of Latvia at the Ventspils Olimpiskais Stadions in Ventspils on Thursday, kick-off at 16:45.
The Latvian side, on the other hand, eliminated Teuta Durres of Albania 3-1 on aggregate after a comfortable 3-0 home win and a narrow defeat away from home.
After such a great feat in Split, coach Giovanni Tedesco’s main task was to help the players keep their feet on the ground and treat this clash with the right mindset. In fact, although on paper, Hajduk are a much stronger side than Ventspils, the latter are already mid-way through their domestic league campaign apart from the fact that in Europe, they manage to qualify for a second round on a regular basis and once reached the group stage of the UEFA Europa League.
The Maroons travelled to Riga on Tuesday evening and on their arrival, in the early hours of Wednesday, were transferred to the city of Liepājā in a close-to-three hour drive. Coach Giovanni Tedesco and president Sharlon Pace joined the squad on Wednesday on a flight to Liepaja, via Frankfurt, as the Italian coach could not make the trip on Tuesday as he was not feeling well.
On Wednesday, the team opted to hold its training session in Liepaja rather than travel for two hours to Ventspils and then travel another two hours back in order to allow the players enough rest. Gzira therefore did not hold the customary training session at the match venue on the eve of the game.
Tedesco has the full squad at his disposal and hopes the players manage to get a result which keeps alive the chances of qualifying for the next round ahead of the second leg.
FK Ventspils are based in Ventspils and were founded in 1997 with the merger of two former Ventspils clubs – FK Venta and FK Nafta. They won six league titles and seven Latvian cups.
In the 2009/10 season FK Ventspils became the first Latvian club to participate in the group stages of UEFA club competitions. They entered the Champions League where they eliminated F91 Dudelange and BATE Borisov but were eliminated in the play-offs by FC Zurich. They moved on to the UEFA Europa League where they finished fourth in a group which included Sporting CP from Portugal, Hertha BSC from Germany and Heerenveen from the Netherlands.
Last season, they took part in the UEFA Europa League where they eliminated Luftetari of Albania with an 8-3 aggregate score in the first qualifying round but lost 0-1 and 1-2 to Bordeaux in the second qualifying round.
Ventspils are currently fourth in the Virsliga on 28 points, thirteen behind leaders Riga FC, seven behind second-placed Rigas FS and two behind Spartaks Jurmala. Last year, they finished in the runner-up spot, four points behind champions Riga FC. In the Cup final, they lost on penalties to Riga FC.
Meanwhile the second leg will be played on Thursday August 1 at the Centenary Stadium. The winner of the clash between Gzira and Ventspils will be facing Jeunesse Esch of Luxembourg or Vitória SC of Portugal in the third qualifying round of the competition.