Valletta FC will be all out to secure a place in the next round of the UEFA Europa League as they host Bala Town of Wales in the first qualifying round at the Centenary Stadium on Thursday, kick-off at 20:00.
The Citizens took the runner-up spot last season as they were lying three points behind Floriana when the league was suspended and eventually terminated.
Coach Giovanni Tedesco, who had replaced Darren Abdilla in February, stepped down and his place was taken by Jesmond Zerafa who had led the Citizens to two consecutive championships between 2010 and 2012.
The squad went through minor changes following the departure of Steve Borg and the release of Bojan Kaljevic and the signing of three new players, namely Serbian central defender Mihailo Jovanovic, Japanese left winger Taisei Marukawa and Brazilian forward Taylon.
Valletta face a Welsh team for a third time after eliminating Barry Town in 1999 with a 3-2 win aggregate score in the UEFA Champions League but were eliminated by Newtown from the UEFA Europa League with a 2-4 aggregate score in 2015.
Apart from the success against Barry Town, Valletta had eliminated Keflavik of Iceland in 2009, Tre Fiori of San Marino in 2011, Lusitanos of Andorra in 2012, La Fiorita in 2013, B36 of the Faroe Islands in 2016, Folgore of San Marino in 2017 and F91 Dudelange of Luxembourg last season.
Bala Town FC are based in the town of Bala, Gwynedd in Wales. The club was formed in 1880. They were promoted for the first time to the Cymru Premier (the top division in Wales) in 2009.
They ended twice as runners-up – in 2014/15 and 2015/16 – and won the Welsh Cup in 2016/17. This will be their sixth participation in the UEFA Europa League after always being eliminated from the first qualifying round or the Preliminary Round in the previous occasions.
Last season, Bala Town finished third on 49 points, seven behind champions Connah’s Quay Nomads after the league was suspended and eventually cancelled.
Addressing the media on Wednesday, coach Jesmond Zerafa stressed that the game against Bala Town will be no easy game.
“Whoever thinks this will be an easy game is wrong. Of course, everyone has a right for his opinion. We analysed our opponents very well and I believe that they are a team which will make our life difficult.”
“We are prepared well. We had only the opportunity to play only two friendly matches to be better prepared for such matches, apart from the fact that the league is yet to start but still, I believe that we will be doing our best to qualify for the next stage.”
“This is not the first time we met teams from Wales – on one occasion we qualified, on another we were eliminated but this is our day where we need to show that we are a competitive side – a team which is well prepared for such matches. I believe that if we play in the same way we had been preparing for the past six weeks, we can do it,” said the new Valletta coach.
Zerafa said that eight years after his departure, the only remaining member of the squad is Jonathan Caruana. However, he is not worried about having a completely different squad since then.
“Everyone knows that the Valletta squad features several experienced players. The atmosphere within the squad and the winning mentality makes it much easier for the coach. The only headache for the coach is the competition between players but I believe that Valletta are always among the main challengers for honours due to this competition between players and I will be doing my best to keep this at the same level.
Jesmond Zerafa added that he is satisfied with the players at his disposal.
“I believe in the players we have. Valletta always had good quality players. The league campaign will obviously be difficult but for the time being, we focus on this game and then we could turn our focus to the league.”
With regards to Bala Town, the Valletta coach said, “We analysed both their strengths and weaknesses. They play the British style. However, we have good ball players and tactically, we are usually a better side than such teams. We will be playing an offensive game. I believe that if our players show strength and determination, it would not be difficult.”
The Valletta coach said that Bala Town are looking forward towards securing their first ever qualification to the second round. However he is relying on the experienced players who have played against highly-rated teams and most of the time, left the pitch with their heads held up high and therefore against teams which are more or less on same level these players should help bring the best out of the younger ones.
Captain Jonathan Caruana said the players were well aware of the importance of this game both for them and for the club and that they will be doing their best to qualify for the next round.
Goalkeeper Henry Bonello added that once again, the players will be doing their best to advance, at least, past the first round of the competition as this was always a pleasant experience for the players.
Qualifying round matches are being played in single legs with extra time and a penalty shoot-out if required. Winners advance to the UEFA Europa League second qualifying round, scheduled for September 17. The draws will be held on August 31.