Club football begins again this week as BOV Premier League champions Hamrun Spartans take on Maccabi Haifa at the Centenary Stadium in this season’s UEFA Champions League qualifiers on Tuesday (kick-off: 8pm).
Following a historic run in European qualifying last season, reaching the playoffs of the UEFA Europa Conference League, the Spartans went on a triumphant run in the Maltese Premier League to take the title with matches to go. Now they look to emulate that success and take that step further under new coach Luciano Zauri.
Speaking to a press conference before the fixture, Zauri, said his players are ready for the challenge.
“We have prepared in the best of ways,” Zauri said, “It’s always a theory of what we are expecting on the pitch which we prepare with.
“I’ve gotten to know the guys in these past few months, the players from the national team a bit less but they have recovered well, and I know that I have great players. I appreciate the professionality that they have and for this, I thank the club and the players themselves.”
Maccabi Haifa, most recently remembered as the giant killers who managed to beat Juventus in the group stages of the Champions League last season, will be a tough nut to crack despite making wholesale changes to both their squad and their technical staff.
First-team coach Barak Bakr left the club to join Serbian giants Red Star Belgrade and was replaced by the club’s youth coach Masai Dago who will lead the team out on Tuesday.
In spite of this, Zauri believes concentration must remain on Hamrun’s abilities.
“The opponent is a tough adversary ‑ a very good squad, but honestly I thought more about our qualities rather than the opponents,” the former Lazio defender said.
“They have their own good and bad so we must stay concentrated on our game and look at our opportunities, may they be few or many, and be ready for tomorrow.
“We’ve looked at videos from their friendlies – they have changed a lot of things on the pitch. They have good players and they are very strong in attack. But we are prepared 100%.”
Spartans captain Steve Borg echoed the words of his coach, saying that he and the National team players are back in shape after their short break.
“It’s not the first time our break has been shorter than usual because of the National Team commitments so we’re used to it now,” Borg said.
“We had an agreement with the club to recover with a few days off and we eventually started training again gradually so that we’ll be ready for tomorrow’s game.
“We know that tomorrow will be difficult, but I’m sure it will be hard for them (Maccabi Haifa) too. We’re prepared for it, and hopefully what we’ve got in our plans will be achieved.”
Present and future
Hamrun coach Zauri was appointed by the Spartans in April as a replacement to Branco Nisevic and in spite of his pedigree, onlookers will be anxious to see what the former Italian international has to offer in terms of taking the Spartans into their next phase.
“I’ve already looked at the club’s success last season and I’ve congratulated them for the way they won the league,” Zauri said.
“But I’ve told them as well that last season is not my concern – I can’t just think about the past results. My past is also essential, but it makes no difference in terms of what we have to do now.
“We must look at the present and future, the guys are great players and pressure is part of football – I love it! Last season I didn’t coach, and I missed this pressure so now I’m back doing the things I’ve always done.”
Asked about the club’s most high-profile signing, Italian goalkeeper Federico Marchetti, Zauri said it was a good opportunity to take, especially with Malta international No. 1 Henry Bonello out due to injury – the only absentee for Tuesday’s fixture.
“All of the squad is available; the only worry is Henry Bonello but we all know that. He is recovering quickly but not enough for tomorrow,” he said.
“It is a problem what happened to (Henry) Bonello, and we took the opportunity to bring over (Federico) Marchetti. He is a great player and an important addition to the team. We know the strengths of Bonello as well as Marchetti, but the competition is tough not only in the goalkeeper position. We have a lot to choose from.”
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