The UEFA Champions League first qualifying round concludes tonight with 20 clubs eyeing the ten places on offer in the next round.
Twists and turns
Remarkably, five of last week's ten matches were won by the away side, while just one was drawn, which has increased the perception that the return legs may throw up some unexpected twists and turns.
Arguably only FC WIT Georgia, 5-0 winners against HB Tórshavn, and Skonto FC, 4-0 victors against Rhyl FC, will be fully confident of progress, although KF Tirana, FC Pyunik, NK Gorica and FBK Kaunas must also be considered favourites in their respective ties.
Albanian champions Tirana won 2-0 at Belarus's FC Gomel, and Pyunik of Armenia take a 3-1 advantage into their home leg against FK Pobeda of F.Y.R. Macedonia. Meanwhile, Lithuanian champions Kaunas entertain Maltese counterparts Sliema Wanderers FC holding a 2-0 lead. But coach Šenderis Giršovičius is urging caution: "We can't think that we are already in the next round - we still have to get there."
Giršovičius is without Darius Žutautas, scorer of the first Champions League goal of 2004/05, due to injury. Fellow defender Darius Regelskis also misses out while midfielder Giedrius Barevičius is a major doubt.
Sliema have just 15 players to choose from, with captain Noel Turner, Carlo Mamo and Joseph Farrugia all absent. "I'm very disapointed not to be there ," said Turner. "We did not play at all well in the first leg." The match could be striker Michael Mifsud's last in a Sliema shirt with the 23-year-old poised to move to Norway's Lillestrøm SK.
One of the tightest games of the night will be in Azerbaijan where PFC Neftchi welcome NK Široki Brijeg from Bosnia-Herzeogvina, who won the first leg 2-1. Široki Brijeg coach Ivo Istuk believes the tie is too tight to call. "Our opponents are a very strong side," he said. "It's 50-50."
Another close encounter awaits Finland's HJK Helsinki and Linfield FC of Northern Ireland. HJK, tonight's hosts, won the first leg 1-0, but coach Keith Armstrong is concerned. "If Linfield score the first goal, we are in a worse situation than before the first match started," he said. "We must be fully prepared physically and mentally."
All to play for
Elsewhere, Shelbourne FC and KR Reykjavík, who drew 2-2 in Iceland last week, have everything to play for in the Republic of Ireland, while FC Sheriff of Moldova have a 2-0 lead to protect at Luxembourg's AS Jeunesse Esch.
However, the meeting of Slovenia's Gorica and Estonians FC Flora in Nova Gorica has been overshadowed by tragedy. Flora, who lost the first leg 4-2, announced on Tuesday that their goalkeeping coach Valdemaras Martinkenas had died. The former Lithuanian international drowned in a Slovenian river during the club's preparations for the match.
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