Difficult tests for Sirens, Hibernians in UEFA Europa League

Sirens and Hibernians will be in action away from home in the first qualifying round of the UEFA Europa League on Thursday.

Making their first appearance in a European competition, Sirens take on CSKA-Sofia of Bulgaria at the Stadion Balgarska Armia in Sofia while at the Rheinpark Stadion in Vaduz, Hibernians face FC Vaduz of Liechtenstein. Both matches kick-off at 19:00.

The qualifying rounds are being played in single legs and therefore if the result is still draw at the end of the ninety minutes, extra-time will be played and if necessary, the penalty shoot-out would determine the winner.

Photos: Copyright © Jonathan Bugeja

After a historic fourth place in the BOV Premier League, Sirens, led by coach Steve D’Amato, will be hoping for a good performance in Sofia. The squad has been strengthened with the signing of a number of experienced players like Jonathan Pearson, Ryan Scicluna, Terence Agius, Wilfried Domoraud, Samba Tounkara and veteran striker Michael Mifsud. They also secured the services of Jacob Walker. Manuel Angel Bustos returns with Sirens after a spell on loan with Qormi but Edward Herrera, Luke Sciberras, Abdullahi Ige Adeshina, Flavio Cheveresan, Emmanuel Okoye, Ricardo Silva Faria are no longer with the club.

Their opponents, CSKA-Sofia, need no introduction. They were officially established in 1948. The club has won a record 31 times the Bulgarian league and 20 Bulgarian Cups. Internationally, CSKA are the only Bulgarian club to have reached the semi-finals of the European Cup, which they have done twice – in 1966/67 and 1981/82 when they were eliminated by Inter and Bayern Munich respectively, and they have also reached the semi-final of the UEFA Cup Winners’ Cup in 1988/89 when they were eliminated by Barcelona.

Last season, CSKA-Sofia placed second, thirteen points behind champions Ludogorets Razgrad. In the final of the Bulgarian Cup, they lost to Lokomotiv Plovdiv on penalties. This season, they are currently joint-leaders in the Bulgarian First League after winning two matches, the other ending in a draw.

This is the third time that CSKA were paired with a Maltese club in a European competition. CSKA had defeated Sliema Wanderers with a 6-1 aggregate score in the European Cup in 1966 and Hibernians 4-1 in the UEFA Intertoto Cup in 1996.

Photos: Copyright © Jonathan Bugeja

Meanwhile Hibernians face an equally difficult task in Vaduz. Although FC Vaduz hail from Liechtenstein, the club competes in the Swiss Football League and this season will be playing once again in the Swiss top division – the Swiss Super League.

However they do take part in the Liechtenstein Cup which they won for 47 times and therefore have been participating regularly in the UEFA Europa League. Although they managed to qualify for further rounds on various occasions, they never managed to make it beyond the third qualifying round of the UEFA Europa League. 

Last season, the Liechtenstein Cup was was abandoned due to the COVID-19 pandemic in Liechtenstein. Vaduz were selected to play by the Liechtenstein FA in the 2020–21 UEFA Europa League as the team with the highest UEFA club coefficient. They placed second in the Swiss Challenge League, gaining promotion after winning the play-offs.

The Paolites finished third last season as they were lying four points behind champions Floriana and one behind Valletta. This summer, the club secured the services of Zachary Karl Grech and four new foreign players, namely Leandro Almeida, Shola Shodiya, Rundell Winchester and Jose Wilkson Teixeira. The club welcomed back goalkeeper Rudy Briffa after spending a one-year loan with neighbours Tarxien Rainbows while Marko Jovicic, Márcio Leandro Barbosa de Silveira, Joseph Mbong and Imanol Iriberri moved elsewhere.

Although they have been participating in UEFA competitions since 1961, Hibernians only managed to qualify to the second qualifying round twice, eliminating Shelbourne in 2002 and FCI Tallinn in 2017 – in both occasions from the UEFA Champions League.

The winners would move onto the second qualifying round of the UEFA Europa League which will be played on September 17. The draws will be held on August 31.