MOTHERWELL have yet to win a single European match so far under manager Stuart McCall. In fact, they’ve yet to even score a goal in three two-legged ties.
That anomaly should change with the visit of Icelandic side Stjarnan to Fir Park tonight. The hosts are heavy favourites going into the match and are fancied to advance to the next round.
That doesn’t mean that the opposition should be taken lightly. Stjarnan are riding a wave of momentum having gone unbeaten so far in the Icelandic top flight and do have the advantage of being more match ready than their Scottish counterparts.
While Motherwell should be wary of the threat posed, there remains plenty of opportunity to exploit the visitors’ weaknesses, ensuring a smooth passage into the next round.
Prospect of an attacking shoot-out
Motherwell took second place last season using the mantra ‘if you score three goals, we’ll score four’, making them one of the best teams to watch in Scotland. Coincidentally, Stjarnan currently sit second in the Icelandic league using a similar sort of philosophy. Their 13 goals conceded from 11 games isn’t bad – in fact it’s second best in the table – but it pales in significance to the six goals leaders FH have allowed in, and Stjarnan haven’t kept a clean sheet in their last eight league games.
The loss of Henri Anier and James McFadden does weaken the attacking corps, but neither were nailed on starters last season and ‘Well could easily build a worthy attack of Zaine Francis Angol (though he is a doubt) and Lionel Ainsworth on the wings with Iain Vigurs supporting John Sutton through the middle. That should still be enough to overpower the visitors in the first leg if they want to remain true to the system that got them into Europe in the first place.
Without Anier, and Craig Moore out injured, Sutton will need to have his shooting boots on since there’s few other options in attack if he has a poor couple of games.
Life after Hutchinson
How leaky was Motherwell’s defence last season? Well, their 60 goals conceded was the highest amount in the top six and even nine goals higher than a team who got relegated (Hibs). Now that Shaun Hutchinson has departed, Motherwell fans have to feel anxious about that area of the team deteriorating further.
The back four were often left exposed by the way Motherwell played and, from the three signings they’ve made thus far, that doesn’t look like it’s going to change. Hutchinson had all the physical tools you could ask for in a centre back, which helped bail them out on a few occasions when he was isolated against an opposing attacker. Fraser Kerr or Simon Ramsden will step into his place and they’ll need to hit the ground running.
Stopping Ólafur Karl Finsen would be a good start. The young striker is an impressively intelligent player for his age; someone who reads the game well and manages to find pockets of space even in crowded areas. He’s a big reason why Stjarnan have managed to challenge for the title this year and Stephen McManus and co will need to keep a close eye on him.
Curb their enthusiasm
Motherwell are the favourites and will look to kill the tie off in the first leg. However, with a lack of match sharpness they may need to be a little more pragmatic in their approach, particularly in the away leg.
In order to do so, they may look to encourage either Keith Lasley or whomever his midfield partner may be – likely to be one of Stuart Carswell, Jack Leitch or Paul Lawson – to drop back a little, keeping an eye on Stjarnan talisman Veigar Páll Gunnarsson who does like to use his experience from an 18-year football career (including 33 international caps) to retreat from the forward line into ‘the hole’, looking for space. This could cause considerable problems against Motherwell’s flat 4-4-2.
It’s supposed to be an outdated formation in modern football but Lasley and Carswell covered enough ground, going from box to box, to make it work for Stuart McCall in the last campaign. That being said, it still left the defence vulnerable and while 5-0 defeats (such as the one suffered at Dundee United in April) are pretty much equal to 1-0 losses in league play, they almost equate to instant elimination in these two-legged affairs. If Francis-Angol can get fit then it’ll allow Vigurs to play the No.10 role and create an extra link through the centre of the park between midfield and attack, thereby allowing Lasley and Carswell to concentrate more on defensive duties.
The threat of Lionel Ainsworth
Stjarnan play with a 4-3-3. It’s a system that should allow Ainsworth to terrorise the full-back if he’s left one-on-one with him and no supporting Stjarnan wide midfielder in sight. The Englishman has tremendous pace, a good cross and one of the best shooting techniques in Scottish football. He can win matches on his own and chances are that Stjarnan will have to either adapt their system or have one of the front three track back to help out his marker. Either way, it’ll be a huge advantage to a Motherwell side who have the scales tipping their way already.
Thanks to Brynjar Ingi Erluson, staff writer at fotbolti.net, for providing the information on Stjarnan.