The prospect of facing Portuguese outfit Boavista FC should ensure a thrilling conclusion to Hibernians FC's UEFA Champions League first qualifying round encounter against Shelbourne FC tonight.
Having drawn the first leg 2-2 at the National stadium in Ta'Qali last week, the Maltese champions and the Irish National League winners come face to face in Dublin, with a money-spinning tie against the 2000/01 Portuguese champions adding an extra incentive to an already delicately poised contest.
While Shelbourne are firmly in the driving seat with their two away goals, Hibernians remain confident that they can get a result at Tolka Park and advance to the second qualifying round, moving a step closer to their ultimate goal of reaching the first group stage of the Champions League.
Hibernians coach Robert Gatt was furious at the end of the first leg after his side conceded two soft goals to give their opponents the upper hand, but Nigerian striker Chuckunyere Ndubisi believes that he and his team-mates still have an even chance of going through. Ndubisi, whose superb display in the first meeting should augur well, said: "It is difficult after the 2-2 draw, but for me the tie is still 50-50. In the first leg we were not inferior to Shelbourne and I believe that if our defence is much more composed in the away tie, we still stand a better chance."
'Money at stake'
Shelbourne player-manager Pat Fenlon also admitted that the tie was far from over ahead of tonight's game and is looking for his charges to take the early initiative. "The two away goals we scored in Malta were a real bonus,'' said Fenlon. "An early goal this time would really set us up, but I don't want to hear any talk about Boavista until we complete the business against Hibernians. It's important that the crowd get right behind us from the start. There is a lot of money at stake and that's important for the club. We have to be confident that we are strong enough to finish the job at Tolka.''
The Irish side will be without central defender Kevin Doherty, who injured a rib in the first leg, Barry Prenderville is set to deputise. Striker Stephen Geoghegan will also be missing, as he serves the final game of a three-match ban after being sent off against Brøndby IF in last season's UEFA Cup. Shelbourne will be looking to their new strikeforce of Marc Roberts and Trevor Molloy for goals, while wingers Richie Baker and Ollie Cahill could also play an important role.
'Thorough and professional'
Hibernians can field a strong side, although midfield player Miguel Mifsud looks certain to miss the game after deciding to stay at home as his wife is expecting a baby. Gatt has prepared the Maltese outfit to the best of his ability but realises his team will be the underdogs going into the match. "Our preparations have been thorough and professional,'' he said. "I believe my team still have a 49 per cent chance and we will give it our best effort."
What might have been
While tonight's winners will be relishing the prospect of a two-legged tie against Boavista, for the losers it will be a case of what might have been.
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