Robbie Neilson will urge his players to be switched on in the Malta heat as Hearts aim to avoid falling into the same trap as Birkirkara’s last European opponents.
The temperature could be as high as 85F inside the Hibernians stadium in Paola, where Birkirkara have moved tomorrow’s Europa League second qualifying round first leg tie from their own ground. Neilson is aware of the problems this may present to his players, who he stressed must remain alert after water breaks which are likely to be scheduled in the middle of each half.
Neilson has already noted how Siroki Brijeg’s fate was sealed last week when they failed to get themselves sufficiently organised after play was stopped during the first half so players could rehydrate. With Birkirkara having claimed a vital away goal in a 1-1 draw in the first leg, their opening goal in the second leg put paid to their opponents’ chances of getting back into the tie.
“Going over there in the heat is going to be very difficult,” said Neilson. “It’s hard for us to prepare for it with a Scottish summer when it’s raining outside and it’s ten degrees. It’s going to be a big difference when it’s 85 or 90 degrees when we play.
“If you watch games over there it is a very slow, low tempo, and it comes to life for a couple of minutes and then dies down again. It is not like Scottish football where it is gung ho the whole time. We need to understand that and get used to the way it is played. We need to get used to having water breaks halfway through a half. We need to try and deal with it. If you saw the Siroki game, Birkirkara scored just after the water break, about ten seconds after it. The Siroki players were still getting back on the pitch and were wondering what was going on… bang, goal. Game over. It is something we need to make sure we are wary of so that if we do come off we are ready to get straight back into the game.”
While Maltese football is improving, Neilson warned against equating Birkirkara with Malta’s moderate reputation as a football nation. The club has benefited from recent heavy investment and the current side includes Serbs, Croats, Danes and even a Brazilian as well as homegrown players. The club was formed in 1950 after a merger of Birkirkara United and Birkirkara Celtic. Since securing the Maltese Premier League title in 2000 for the first time, they have won it on a further three occasions and have qualified for Europe for the 20th consecutive season.
But their name became better known last year when they took West Ham United to penalties in a Europa League qualifying tie, after a shock 1-0 second leg victory. They lost out 5-3 on penalty kicks.
“That was a phenomenal result for a team from Malta,” said Neilson. “We know it will be a tough one and I am sure the fans will realise that once we get there. They have some good players there. They have a guy who has put some money in. It is the same with all these nations, there are always one or two teams in each country with a backer who will put good money in. When they start doing that obviously they are going to bring in good players.
“You can take any team and if you have an owner who puts in £10 million then you have a good team, doesn’t matter where it is.
“There are people willing to do that in every country – look at the Estonian team (FC Infonet) we played against, there was someone putting in money there.
“There’s Maltese teams where there are people putting money in. As soon as someone does that it makes it difficult to compete against.”
Meanwhile, in the wake of Morgaro Gomis’s departure to Malaysian club Kelantan and Billy King’s loan move to Inverness Caledonian Thistle, Neilson has revealed he is still in the market for two players.
Liam Donnelly, a Northern Irish defender, is still currently on trial. But Neilson’s priorities lie further up the field.
“I’d like to get another striker in but we need a left-sided player as well,” he said. “That’s the two positions I’m looking at right now.
“We’re still looking, there are options out there. We’ve got our eyes on a couple but it’s trying to get them in. We also have to make sure they’re players who will make a difference here. There are a couple we’re trying to push.
“There’s loads of time and I don’t want to rush into it. I’m happy with what I’ve got at the moment. Anyone who comes in will need to be a really good player.”