Hamrun Spartans face uphill task as they host Maccabi Haifa

Hamrun Spartans face an uphill task as they host Maccabi Haifa of Israel in the first leg of the first qualifying round of the UEFA Champions League at the Centenary Stadium on Tuesday, kick-off at 20:00.

The Spartans were just one step away from qualifying for the group stage of the UEFA Europa Conference League last summer after eliminating Alashkert of Armenia, Velez Mostar of Bosnia-Herzegovina and Levski Sofia of Bulgaria but bowed out of the play-off round after losing on aggregate to Partizan Belgrade.

The objective of reaching the group stage of a UEFA competition is no secret but the path is, at least on paper, a more difficult one. After entering the UEFA Champions League, in case of elimination at any stage of the qualifying rounds, they would still face other champion clubs in the Champions Path of either the UEFA Europa League or the UEFA Europa Conference League.

Following the appointment of Luciano Zauri as their new coach to replace Branko Nisevic, the Spartans strengthened the squad with the signing of former Italy national team goalkeeper Federico Marchetti, defenders Karlo Bilic and Joseph Zerafa, midfielders Nemanja Krstic and Elionay, wingers Yuliyan Nenov and Seth Paintsil and centre forward Uros Djuranovic.

Rodrigo Callegari, Vinicius Freitas, Elvis Mashike, Dodo and Kalle Holmberg were not retained while Footballer of the Year Matthew Guillaumier was released as he seeks an opportunity abroad.

The new Hamrun coach congratulated the players for their achievement last year but now it was time to focus on the present and future.

“We always need to look forward and concentrate on the future. Pressure is part of the game. I was not coaching last year and was eager to be back and feel this pressure.”

Zauri said that the team has been preparing for this game for quite some time.

“We prepared for this game in the best way possible but ultimately the pitch will determine how well we prepared for it. I am sure the players will play a great game because over the past month, I came to know the players. In case of the Maltese national team players, I had less time but they recovered well. Good players are quick to get in sync with me. The players have showed great willingness and professionalism and I have to thank the club and the players for welcoming me in the best way possible.”

“Maccabi Haifa need no introduction. They are a very strong team but honestly, I preferred focussing on our qualities, on what we would like to do. Naturally, we will be under pressure considering they are a strong team but we have our chances.”

“We saw videos of some of their friendly matches. They changed a lot as well and therefore they are still trying to find the best tactical set-up. They have strong players, tall players in attack, very aggressive and good quality players. I am expecting a team who will be coming here to claim victory. ”

Zauri is not worried about the fact that national team players hardly had any break after the end of last season since they were on a training camp leading the friendly match and EURO qualifiers in programme last month.

“What I can say is that the players are in good condition and are looking forward to play again. Such matches are exciting for players, not only the new signings but also for the local players.”

Captain Steve Borg added that this was not the first time that the players hardly had a break and now got used to it.

“The club understood our position and gave us a few days off and then we started the pre-season gradually so that we will be at our hundred percent for these games. “

“We know that it will be a difficult game but we are prepared well and manage to put in practice what we have in mind,” added Steve Borg

One player who will miss this game is goalkeeper Henry Bonello who sustained an injury in the EURO qualifier against Ukraine.

“It was a big problem losing Bonello but had the opportunity to sign Marchetti. It will be exciting to have healthy competition between Bonello and Marchetti since we know their qualities. Actually we have competition in almost all roles. It is good to have choice. The problem is when you do not have a choice.”

Apart from the injured Henry Bonello, one of the new signings, Seth Paintsil, is in doubt as he is recovering from an injury.

Maccabi Haifa is one of the “Big Four” clubs in Israeli, winning fifteen championships, six State Cups, five Toto Cups and four Super Cups. They were the first Israeli club to qualify for the group stage of the UEFA Champions League in 2002/03. Maccabi Haifa holds the record, for the most Champions League group stage qualifications for an Israeli team in three occasions.

They reached the group stage of the UEFA Cup in 2006/07, UEFA Champions League in 2009/10, UEFA Europa League in 2011/12 and 2013/14, UEFA Europa Conference League in 2021/22 and UEFA Champions League last season.

Maccabi Haifa’s best run in Europe was in 1998/99 when they reached the quarter-finals of the Cup Winners Cup while in 2006/07, they made it to the Round of 16 of the UEFA Cup.

Maccabi Haifa won the championship last season, finishing seven points ahead of Hapoel Be’er Sheva and eight ahead of Maccabi Tel Aviv. This was the third championship in a row for Maccabi Haifa.

In their preparation ahead of these qualifiers, Maccabi Haifa played three friendly matches, defeating Universitatea Cluj 3-0 and losing 1-2 to Slavia Prague and 0-1 to St. Polten.

The team went through a number of changes during the close season with the departure of a number of players like midfielder Mohammed Abu Fani and winger Omer Atzili and the signing of defender Pierre Cornud from Real Oviedo, attacking midfielder Lior Refaelov from Anderlecht and centre forward Erik Shuranov from Nuremberg. Their new coach is Messay Dego.

Whoever qualifies between Hamrun and Maccabi Haifa will face the winner of the clash between Farul Costanta of Romania and Sheriff Tiraspol of Moldova in the second qualifying round of the UEFA Champions League.

On the other hand, the team which is eliminated will enter the UEFA Europa Conference League where they would face the loser of the clash between Astana of Kazakhstan and Dinamo Tbilisi of Georgia.