Ħamrun Spartans coach Luciano Zauri was delighted with the character shown by his players as the Malta champions stunned Georgian side Dinamo Tbilisi 1-0 to progress to the third qualifying round of the UEFA Conference League.
Uros Djuranovic scored the winner on the stroke of half-time and although the Montenegrin forward was dismissed during the interval the Spartans kept their composure after the break to seal victory and set up a third qualifying round tie against Hungarian champions Ferencvaros.
This is the second successive season that the Spartans have reached this stage of a UEFA club competition and Zauri said that he has been impressed at how far his newly-formed team has come since he took over this summer.
“It was an extraordinary performance from the players,” Zauri told the Times of Malta.
“We knew that we had a very difficult task ahead of us against a very strong team but the players were simply unbelievable right from the word go. They played like warriors.
“Looking back I might have some little recriminations as in our first two matches against Maccabi Haifa we too played well, particularly in the first leg in Malta, but ended up with a 4-0 defeat that was surely not a reflection of how good our performance was.
“Since that defeat, the team has come a long way and we are performing more as a team and that was crystal clear against Dinamo Tbilisi. All the players worked for each other and in the end, we got such an impressive result.”
Looking at the game against Tbilisi, Zauri said that it was not easy to contain Dinamo’s fury, particularly in the first half.
“We knew that Dinamo would come out very aggressively and in fact in the first 15 to 20 minutes we struggled to keep the ball,” the Italian said.
“But gradually the players started to believe in themselves and had a half chance through Camenzuli. From then, we improved a lot and started to control better the match.
“We are a team of players who know how to play the ball and that helped us a lot. Obviously, key episodes define these matches and when we scored through Djuranovic on the stroke of half-time it gave us a huge push.
“In the second half, with a player less, we had to fight harder to keep them out but I believe we fully deserved the win and qualification.”
The Ħamrun Spartans coach said that all the players deserve praise for their performance but he admitted that special mention should go to the defensive department.
“It’s true that we defend as a team and attack as a team, but I appreciate that is being highlighted the great performance of our goalkeeper, the three-man defence and our two wing-backs,” the Italian said.
Controversial red card
“They have put up a top-level performance. It’s inevitable that you will concede some opportunities, and Marchetti had to effect some excellent stops but our defensive backline was outstanding as they managed to keep our opponents’ forwards quiet for the whole match so they deserve a lot of credit.”
Djuranovic’s red card was a major talking point as the Montenegrin forward was dismissed by Belarus referee Viktor Shimusik after a clash with Tbilisi coach Giorgi Chiabrishvili in the tunnel.
Zauri said that it was hard to understand how the referee picked up two culprits for an incident that involved 40 people in the dressing room.
“I was not present in the altercation but from what I was told I can’t understand how the referee decided to punish just two persons for an altercation that involved more than 40 people,” the Italian said.
“Losing Uros is a huge blow for us as he is a very important player for our team. My biggest fear is that we will lose him not only for the first leg against Ferencvaros but he might also be suspended for the return leg.
“I am sure that our club officials are discussing the matter and if there will be room to defend our player in front of UEFA they will take the appropriate measures.”
Next up for Ħamrun Spartans is another tough hurdle in their bid to match last season’s feat and reach the Play Off round. In fact, they face Hungarian champions Ferencvaros.
“We have not been very lucky with the draw this year,” Zauri said.
“We first got Maccabi Haifa, then Dinamo Tbilisi, and now another strong opponent in Ferencvaros. Our approach will be the same, we will focus on what can we do other than thinking how good our opponents are.
“The team will try and play up to their strengths, try and be compact, and play the game.
“If the opponents will be better than us, we will congratulate them but we will give our all to maintain our European journey alive.”
Ħamrun Spartans host Ferencvaros in the first leg at the National Stadium on Thursday.
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