Maltese champions Birkirkara FC will go into Tuesday's UEFA Champions League second qualifying round opener against Slovenia's NK Maribor full of confidence after a dramatic finish to last season's title race. However, goalkeeper Justine Haber admits he is already feeling nervous ahead of his competition debut.
The Stripes clinched their fourth domestic crown with a 3-1 victory against rivals Hibernians FC on the final day of last season but Europe's premier club competition is another step up, according to No1 Haber. "I feel butterflies in my stomach already," the 32-year-old told UEFA.com. "The UEFA Champions League speaks for itself."
Birkirkara have invested in the transfer market to build up a squad capable of competing on all fronts. Former Valletta FC forward Frank Temile has signed after a spell in Ukraine with FC Dynamo Kyiv, while former Olympique Lyonnais, Grasshopper Club and Stade de Reims striker Demba Touré has also joined. Ricardo Jimenez and Jonathan Maciel are the other major additions to the squad, arriving from Spain and Brazil respectively.
"We have strengthened our squad and I feel that we are stronger than we were last season," added Haber, who is enjoying his second spell at the club after featuring prominently from 2002 to 2005. "I do not want to talk about our opponents but I prefer to talk about out the true potential we have this season. I am sure that with Paul Zammit as our coach we can get a very good result on Tuesday."
Maltese player of the year Paul Fenech also knows Maribor will provide a stern test. Tuesday's visitors have already hit the ground running at the start of their new campaign with a Slovenian Super Cup triumph against NK Olimpija Ljubljana and an opening-day victory against NK Zavrč.
"I can say that with all the new acquisitions coach Paul Zammit has worked hard to create this amazing squad – not a starting XI – but a squad which will surely challenge for the title again next term," said Fenech. "These two UEFA Champions League matches are the most important games for our club. Everyone wants to do well and get through this round. Though NK Maribor are definitely a very difficult opponent we will give everything we have got for the colours of our club."
For 22-year-old midfielder Rowen Muscat, who is entering his fifth season at the club, Birkirkara's UEFA Champions League campaign is the culmination of a hard work and dedication over the course of the last year. "Our team has been building up gradually for the past eight months, culminating in our title success last May," he said. "We have a team full of confidence and we can compete with higher-ranked teams such as Maribor.
"I am confident of a successful result. We are all looking forward to this tie and our home game in particular in front of our own supporters. We will be representing not only the colours of our club but also that of Malta and this gives us that extra impetus to succeed."