Last season’s inaugural Europa Conference League represented Malta’s greatest chance of having a club reach the group stages of a UEFA competition for the first time ever. Unfortunately, Hibernians spurned that opportunity. The Paola club were minutes away from reaching the play-off round of Europe’s newest tournament before it all unravelled late on. All the Paolites had to do was see out injury time against Riga FC however, two red cards, a goal and some more than questionable refereeing saw the game head into extra-time. The nine men were then taken apart during the additional 30 minutes and it was the Latvian champions who booked a date with Lincoln Red Imps for a place in the group stage.
It was a bitterly disappointing result for Stefano Sanderra’s side, especially as they had managed to secure a 1-0 win away from home and appeared to have the tie wrapped up with the game entering its closing stages. The scenes that followed Riga’s equaliser on that August evening will never be forgotten. The substitutes and coaching staff cleared the bench to confront the referee amid scenes of chaos. It was hard not to feel that this season’s Maltese champions had been robbed of victory. But this summer, they’re back, and they mean business.
Hibs back on top domestically
They held off a late charge from Floriana to claim the BOV Premier League title last term, losing on just three occasions as they won the trophy for the first time in five years. That victory will see them enter the UEFA Champions League first qualifying round where they have been drawn against Shamrock Rovers. Progressing to the group stages of Europe’s elite competition is an impossible task, however, victory against the Irish champions would be hugely significant. The reason for that is, should a club lose in the second qualifying round of the Champions League qualifying, they would then drop into qualifying for the Europa League rather than the Conference League, moving them one step closer to their goal.
Should they lose to the Dublin club then they will have to win three separate ties to reach the Conference League proper. As they are the champions of Malta, they will face their fellow champions from around Europe, which should see them avoid the competitions big guns, such as West Ham United and Villareal.
Former champions face a daunting route
Hamrun Spartans are a team that doesn’t have such a luxury. And how they must have been kicking themselves last season watching rivals Hibs collapse against Riga. It should have been the Spartans facing the club from the Latvian capital as they won the Maltese Premier League in 2021. However, due to a licensing issue with UEFA, they were unable to compete on the European stage, which handed the qualifying spot to their adversaries. This season, rather than following the Champions Path, they will have to do it the hard way. And it doesn’t get much harder than a 5,000+ km round trip to Yerevan, home of Armenian side Alashkert. Should Branko Nisevic manage to mastermind a victory over the four-time Armenian champions, it won’t get any easier. A whole host of Europe’s top clubs awaiting them further down the qualification line and it would be one of football’s biggest shocks if the club were to qualify.
Floriana are another club that will also face a difficult route to the group stages. They were crowned Maltese champions during the curtailed 2020 season however, the Conference League didn’t yet exist. As such, when they lost to Romanian champions CFR Cluj, rather than dropping to the third tier of European competition, they dropped to the Europa League. They did manage to pick up a victory in the Europa League, defeating David Healy’s Linfield, however more Baltic heartbreak would await, losing on penalties to Flora Tallinn of Estonia.
Gzira United, on the other hand, stand a good chance of making it to the next round as they take on Atletic d’Escaldes of Andorra but a clash with Radnicki Nis of Serbia awaits them in the second qualifying round.
Is this the year?
But it all comes back to Hibernians. They represent Malta’s best hope of finally reaching the group stages of a European competition. The Conference League was specifically designed so that clubs from lower-ranking countries would get their chance on the continental stage and last season, we saw Armenian, Estonian and Gibraltarian teams all make their European bow. Surely Malta’s time is now.