Back in February when he took charge of Ħamrun Spartans, Branko Nisevic’s task was to stabilise the team and make sure to lead them to European football.
A run of seven positive results from the remaining eight games in the domestic season ensured the Spartans a berth in the UEFA Europa Conference League.
Finally, Ħamrun were going to play European football after having to miss out the previous year due to a ban over their involvement in a match-fixing case a decade ago.
However, no one would have bet a single dime about Ħamrun’s chances of making it as far as the Play Off round – practically in a territory where no Maltese side has never been before.
In order to achieve this milestone, a club needs a person who really believes they can shine on the biggest stage.
Nisevic was that man for the Spartans, together with his technical staff who have done an excellent homework in order to allow their players to excel in the UEFA Conference League.
In his first experience as Ħamrun coach in European competitions, Nisevic has a positive record of four wins and two losses which translate into three straight qualifications.
“I am very pleased not only with the result but because we have done something which the whole country can be proud of,” Nisevic told the Times of Malta.
“To make it so far, you need good material to work with and our journey was not easy including in the first qualifying round.
“Nonetheless, it was against Alashkert where we already started to show what we were capable of.”
Up until the 55th minute of the second leg against Alashkert, Ħamrun were trailing the Armenian side by two goals.
Hopes were all but dashed, however, a flurry of four goals in 20 minutes sparked the Spartans into life as they embarked on a memorable run in the second edition of this competition.
Against Levski Sofia, Ħamrun’s bravery was rewarded as they managed to send the tie into extra-time thanks to a last-gasp winner, moments after the Bulgarian side had just equalised.
“That is an important part of the mental aspect,” the Ħamrun coach said.
“We entered into the second leg without any pressure because we knew that there was nothing to lose at this point.
“We understood how Levski Sofia played but the Bulgarian side did not know we would operate in the second leg and we managed to take full advantage of that.
“Analysing the first leg, I realised that Levski Sofia were a very strong team when pushing forward but they pressed so high that many times they used to leave a lot of space behind so our plan was to try and catch them with quick transitions.
“And our plan worked perfectly as if you look at how we scored the second goal, Levski left so much space for our wingers to exploit and we made the most of it.”
Ħamrun’s list of hostile trips in the Conference League will now see them face Serbian giants Partizan Belgrade, who are in a turmoil of their own.
A poor start to their league, relegation from the Europa League and the sacking of their coach after just 65 days is the state of the Serbian club right now.
Nonetheless, they remain a huge club in their country and last season they reached the last 16 of this competition, therefore Ħamrun have to be aware of the difficulty of this tie. The name ‘Partizan’ is enough to stimulate the players.
“I know Partizan as a club but as a team I don’t know them that much,” Serbian coach Nisevic said.
“They are not going through their best period and they just changed their coach as well.
“On the other hand, they have a huge history with a big fanbase and therefore it is another tough game in Europe for us.
“It’s important that we approach the match with the right mindset and do not think that we have achieved anything so far. They remain a very strong side and we need to maintain the same approach we affronted all matches… be humble and try and play our game.”
For Nisevic, Ħamrun Spartans’ success is something from which not only the club can benefit but also the Maltese football in general.
The former Malta assistant coach said that when Maltese clubs manage to knock out teams of a certain stature, as they did with Alashkert, Velez Mostar and Levski Sofia, and advance to the latter rounds of the qualifying stage, this inevitably exposes Maltese football to more attention.
In fact, this week, the official UEFA Conference League social media account posted a video about the Spartans’ surprising run in the competition.
“This success is important on many levels,” Nisevic said.
“Obviously, for Ħamrun Spartans reaching the Play-Off round has added prestige to the club’s name.
“But more importantly, having three Maltese teams that have managed to reach the third qualifying round of a UEFA competition for the first time has added more attention to our movement.
“At the same time, this is good promotion for Maltese players which is very important so that we prove that we are not amateur anymore.
“If I analyse Levski Sofia and us, Levski have only three
Bulgarian players and if I can compare them with Matthew Guillaumier, they are of the same level.
“No doubt, our reputation will continue to improve thanks to such results.”
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