After losing narrowly in Yerevan, Hamrun Spartans host Alashkert FC of Armenia in the second leg of the UEFA Europa Conference League first qualifying round at the Centenary Stadium on Thursday, kick-off at 20:00.
In the first leg, Hamrun were mostly on the receiving end during the first half with Alashkert scoring the all-important goal on the 24th minute thanks to Artak Yedigaryan. However, during the second half, it was a different story with the Spartans giving a very good account of themselves.
Addressing the media on Wednesday, Hamrun coach Branko Nisevic said “The last game was a kind of a mystery for everyone. It was the first game at European level and you do not know exactly at what level you are. You play against a team which played in the Europa Conference League group stage last year and so, maybe, there was a little bit of fear before the game. Rightly so, we started the game a little bit nervous, we had a couple of unforced errors in passing but as the time passed, the team grew bigger and stronger, more confident and during the second half, we were in a position to control the game, have more possession and show that the difference in quality between the two teams was not as one might have assumed before the match. “
Nisevic admitted that most of the focus in training over the past days was on the attack.
“We are aware that something was missing in attack .. some kind of movements which could have happened in a different way. We worked on it and if case things do not go the way we would like them to go, there is a Plan B how to approach the situation.”
As regards the second leg, the Hamrun coach said “We have now more confidence to face them. What we wanted from the first game was definitely to have an active result to stay in the game for the second leg. I think the result and the performance of the first game gives us reason to be more optimistic in the second game.”
Winning by a one goal-difference would mean that the game would go into extra-time, and possibly penalties, and therefore the Spartans need a win by two goals to make it to the next stage where they would face Velez Mostar of Bosnia Herzegovina in the second qualifying round.
“Physical fitness is very important considering that this game could go into extra-time. I think that we can be satisfied with the level of fitness in the first match and what is important is that even the players who came in later showed the same level of intensity. What is always important is mental preparation. Everything is in the head. We will not go all out just to score the goals but we definitely need to be able to control the game through possession. If we repeat what we did in the second half, with better movement in attack which we expect now, we should be able to reach our objective,” said the Hamrun coach.
The squad has been strengthened ahead of the UEFA Europa Conference League commitments with the arrival of no less than twelve new players.
Branko Nisevic said “The club strategy was to rejuvinate the squad and therefore we changed quite a lot of players. For a coach, this maybe is not an ideal situation as you have to deal with several new players but this is the plan and we need to follow it. We got some young players who have some good qualities and hunger and with this attitude, we will be able to build a team capable of being where it belongs.”
Emerson Marcelina added that considering that only a few players are still with the club from last season’s squad, it was obvious that the new arrivals would need time to settle down but is still confident that Hamrun could make it to the next round.
The former Floriana and Birkirkara midfielder said that when compared to teams like West Ham and Krasnodar, whom he had faced while playing for the Stripes in the UEFA Europa League, Alashkert were not on the same level but the Armenians were still a strong team with a number of technical players in midfield.
“We need to score but we need to be careful not to concede goals. We could score in the first five minutes or in the very last minute. We need to be fully focussed not to concede goals in the first five-ten minutes and then control the game as this would put us closer to scoring goals,” added Marcelina.
Once again, Nisevic could not count on the injured Stefan Cassar together with Moussa Sowe who was not registered in time.
In the previous eight participations in UEFA competitions, the Spartans had managed to qualify to a second round once – in 1984 when they eliminated Ballymena United of Northern Ireland from the first round of the Cup Winners Cup.