Coach Darren Abdilla heaped praise on his players as Gżira United secured a memorable victory over Glentoran after a marathon penalty shoot-out in Northern Ireland to book their place into the second qualifying round of the UEFA Conference League.
It was a thrilling victory for the Maltese Premier League side in a topsy-turvy encounter that had seen them take the lead against the run of play midway through the second half through striker Lucas Macula.
When it looked as though, the Maroons were set to hold on to a 1-0 victory, Glentoran struck the equaliser with virtually the last kick of the match.
Extra time was needed and here Gżira United, inspired by their goalkeeper David Cassar, managed to protect their fort and force a penalty shoot-out.
Here, both teams showed great mental strength as the first 26 penalties were all converted before goalkeeper Cassar completed his man-of-the-match performance when saving the 28th penalty taken by Leon Boyd to secure a 14-13 victory.
Incidentally, to further add a touch of history to Gżira’s victory, it was the highest-scoring shoot-out in UEFA competition history.
Abdilla was visibly delighted and proud of his team’s performance.
“This was a massive achievement by our players given all the problems we faced in the build-up to this match,” Abdilla told the Times of Malta.
“All credit should go to the players who showed great heart and determination to secure this prestigious result. The past six weeks have been anything but easy for us to prepare for this tie but the players left everything out there on the pitch.
“Their fighting spirit and determination was something out of this world.”
For Abdilla, preparations for the UEFA Conference League were anything but easy this season as the club decided to revamp their squad, parting ways with several key players in the close season.
In fact, the Maroons parted ways with eight first-team players, that included defender Luke Tabone, midfielders Steve Pisani and Nikolai Muscat as well as strike duo Jefferson and Maxuell Maia.
“If you look at the state of the squad at the start of pre-season, you realise that this was an incredible feat,” Abdilla said.
“The past six weeks have been very difficult as we’ve had to build the team almost from scratch. Eight first-team players from last season are no longer with us so it was quite hard work. That further instills in me a lot of pride for managing to secure another qualification in European club competitions.
“This is the sixth time in my career that I’ve achieved qualification in a UEFA club competition but obviously this was not something that I did alone. There is a whole team of coaches and physios that has made this result possible.
“We were very disciplined with an almost new team and our work has been rewarded with this excellent result. Obviously, we are cherishing this achievement and we are already looking forward to our next challenge.
“But to conclude it’s difficult to describe how proud I am of the players and the technical staff I have around me.”
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