Difficult tests for Gzira United, Birkirkara

Gzira United and Birkirkara both face difficult tests on Thursday as they play the first legs of the second qualifying round main path of the UEFA Europa Conference League.

Gzira United host HNK Rijeka of Croatia at the Centenary Stadium, kick-off at 19:00, while at the Sportni Park Ljubljana-Sisko, Birkirkara face Olimpija Ljubljana of Slovenia, kick-off at 18:00.

The Maroons reached this stage after defeating UE Sant Julia of Andorra on penalties in the previous round following a goalless draw in Andorra and a 1-1 draw at the end of the ninety minutes and extra-time at Ta’ Qali.

Speaking on Wednesday, coach Darren Abdilla said “It was a different match but we believed in our abilities. We knew that we were going to play against a team which is physically strong. after the draw away from home. We worked hard, fixed our mistakes. I think we were the better team on the pitch. We had to play 120 minutes but still was not enough. We fought back form one goal down. The players played a great match … fought for every ball and finally I believe we had a better mentality when taking the penalties and eventually qualified for the second round.”

Abdilla added that Rijeka are a high-quality team with technically gifted players. They focus mainly on swift counter-attacks and are strong physically. However he said they studied their opponents well and are looking forward for the game.

Although Rijeka has won just one Croatian championship in their history, they won the Croatian Cup six times and the Yugoslav Cup twice. In European competitions, the club has reached the quarter-final of the Cup Winners’ Cup in 1979–80, UEFA Cup Round of 32 in 1984–85, and group stages of the UEFA Europa League in 2013–14, 2014–15, 2017–18 and 2020–21.

In 2000/01, Rijeka were drawn with Valletta in the UEFA Cup, defeating them 3-2 at home and winning 5-4 at the National Stadium.

The domestic season in Croatia already kicked-off with Rijeka opening their commitments with a 2-0 win on HNK Gorica last week. Last season they finished third behind champions Dinamo Zagreb and runner-up Osijek and ahead of fourth-placed Hajduk Split.

The return leg will be played at the Stadion HNK Rijeka Stadion on Thursday 29. A clash with the winner of Hibernian of Scotland vs Santa Coloma of Andorra awaits Gzira or Rijeka in the third qualifying round.

Meanwhile in Ljubljana, Birkirkara face NK Olimpija Ljubljana.

After eliminating La Fiorita of San Marino thanks to a narrow win at Ta’ Qali and a 1-1 draw in Serravalle, the Stripes definitely have a harder nut to crack in Olimpija Ljubljana.

The squad has been strengthened with the arrival of Leandro Aguirre and Jeferson Macedo but it remains to be seen whether coach Andre Paus will be including them for the game.

For the Stripes, this is the third trip to Slovenia after being drawn with NK Maribor in 2007, losing 1-5 on aggregate in the UEFA Intertoto Cup and in 2013, again with Maribor losing 0-2 on aggregate in the UEFA Champions League.

Olimpija were leading the table last season but finished third, four points behind Mura and Maribor following a series of disappointing results in the final stage of the championship. However they managed to win the cup after defeating Celje 2-1.

They won the championship twice and the cup three times. In Europe, they reached the third qualifying round of the UEFA Europa League in 2011/12 and the play-off round of the same competition in 2018/19.

The return leg will be played at the Centenary Stadium on Thursday 29. The team which qualifies will be facing the winner of FC Shkupi 1927 of North Macedonia vs Santa Clara of Portugal in the third qualifying round.