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Spartans elated as they close in on group stage dream

Ħamrun Spartans players celebrate their win in Sofia. Photo: LAP Images

Finally, the third qualifying round hurdle has been overcome as Ħamrun Spartans have become the first ever Maltese representative to qualify to the play-off round of a UEFA club competition.

An incredible achievement for Maltese football which had already witnessed history with three local clubs making it to the third qualifying round in the UEFA Europa Conference League.

Ħamrun’s incredible journey in Europe will now see them take on Serbia’s giants, FK Partizan.

The Belgrade side are 27-time domestic champions who made it as far the last 16 in the first edition of the Conference League before being eliminated by eventual finalists Feyenoord.

“This qualification has showed that Malta has its own talents and that we can compete against some of the best clubs in Europe,” Matthew Guillaumier told the Times of Malta.

“I am proud of having helped the team to write history.

“We can now celebrate a bit before we shift our focus to the next game where will be facing a top team like Partizan.”

Unfortunately for Gżira United and Hibernians, they stumbled in the second leg after their strong showings in the first legs against Austria’s Wolfsberger AC and FK RFS of Latvia.

For Ħamrun, dispatching of Levski Sofia seemed an uphill task considering that the Bulgarians are one of the strongest teams in Bulgaria and had eliminated comfortably Greece’s PAOK in the previous round.

Moreover, Levski’s stoppage-time winner in Ta’ Qali last weekend increased the level of difficulty of the away game in Sofia.

Ħamrun, though, managed to upset the odds just like they did in the previous two rounds when they thrashed Alashkert of Armenia in the second half at the Centenary Stadium and dominated Velez Mostar in front of a hostile environment in Bosnia-Herzegovina.

In front of a sold-out Georgi Asparuhov Stadium, Ħamrun were not fazed by Levski’s home crowd.

Branko Nisevic’s side were smart enough to allow Levski have more of the ball while they wait for the right time to catch their opponents on the break.

With the home side failing to capitalise on its possession, Ħamrun knew they could still take something out this match and Guillaumier’s goal on 78 minutes proved exactly that.

Another brilliant box-entry by the Maltese midfielder which has been a trademark in Ħamrun’s games in this
competition so far.

In fact, the former Siena midfielder has already scored three goals in six European games – home against Alashkert, away at Velez Mostar and one of Ħamrun’s goals in Sofia.

“I think this aspect was something I needed to improve on,” the Malta midfielder explained.

“I am pleased about my goal but I am more happy to contributed to this team in difficult conditions – playing in such an environment in front of that crowd and trailing by one goal. It was indeed a superb performance.”

Then, Ryan Camenzuli’s stoppage-time wonder goal handed Ħamrun Spartans a famous 2-1 victory at Levski Sofia while sending the tie into extra-time.

Eventually, the Spartans managed to seize their chance with Matteo Fedele burying the decisive penalty to send Ħamrun into the play-offs.

Camenzuli’s goal was the perfect definition of a clutch goal. In sports, a clutch performance refers to the strength, concentration, and perfection of an execution in the dying minutes of an event.

The former Birkirkara and Floriana player struck a brilliant curling effort with his exceptional left foot that gave the Levski Sofia players no chance of halting.

What’s more incredible about it is that the goal arrived within seconds from Levski’s equaliser which had seemed all but dashed Ħamrun’s chances of progressing.

Brilliant signing

Camenzuli has been a brilliant acquisition by the Spartans and he delivered with another hard-working performance of the left flank, picking up an assist on Guillaumier’s goal as well even though the latter’s first attempt was blocked by the Levski Sofia custodian.

“This is history for us. It means a lot for this prestigious club, for us players, for the technical staff and to everyone involved at Ħamrun Spartans,” Camenzuli said.

“Last but not least, this is also a huge win for the supporters of this club.”

Ħamrun’s qualification reflects also the quality that this team has and the work that has been done both by the administration and the technical staff to gel this team as quickly as possible.

Moments of quality often determine games on this stage and so far, Ħamrun could bank on several players who deliver big performances.

For Camenzuli, this was his 23rd appearance in European competition and his second goal – his first was in a 1-4 defeat against Hungary’s Diosgyor while donning the colours of Birkirkara back in 2014.

The Malta international believes that his team has enough quality of competing at this stage and they have shown that time and again that they deserve to be in this position.

“You cannot win games like these if you don’t have technical qualities and belief in your own abilities,” Camenzuli said.

“At any point of the game we lost faith in ourselves and believes we could achieve what we did at the end.”

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