Valletta FC have been doing their homework on Qarabağ FK as they return to the UEFA Champions League on Tuesday.
The Maltese champions last appeared in the competition in 2012/13, eliminating FC Lusitans 9-0 on aggregate in the first qualifying round before falling to FK Partizan. Azerbaijani title holders Qarabağ may be making their tournament debut but they have no shortage of continental experience, reaching the UEFA Europa League play-offs last season.
"Qarabağ will be difficult opponents," Valletta's new coach Gilbert Agius told UEFA.com. "I have been following Azerbaijani football because it is my duty as coach to have a general knowledge of nearly all the teams, and I can say that football in that country is improving rapidly due to heavy investment in all sectors of the game. Besides this, there is the travel factor – we have a very long tiring trip ahead of us for the second leg in Azerbaijan, but that's football."
The Maltese capital club have fallen in the second qualifying round of one or other of UEFA's major club competitions every season since the current formats were introduced in 2009/10. They won the domestic double last term, with captain Ryan Fenech named Malta's player of the year, yet have had to face considerable upheaval since.
Dutch coach André Paus and the Georgian duo of goalkeeper Nukri Revishvili and midfielder Irakli Maisuradze transformed Valletta's fortunes when they arrived in January, but all three have now left. Malta defender Steve Borg has signed for South African side Platinum Stars, though he has been replaced by international colleague Ryan Camilleri from Hibernians FC, while young goalkeeper Nicky Vella has arrived from Tarxien Rainbows FC to fill the void created by Revishvili.
Besides Vella and Camilleri, the Malta champions have engaged the services of winger Adrian Zahra from Perth Glory in Australia, Portuguese midfielder Hugo Faria, Hamad Alkamali and promising Cameroonian striker Raphael Kooh-Sohna. Gambian midfielder Hamza Barry is also set to join though Brazilian Denni has left.
Former Valletta and Malta midfielder Agius is working on moulding this new-look team together, with the outstanding pre-season form of one-time Tunisian international Nafti Abdelkarim a cause for celebration.
Senior midfielder Roderick Briffa, 33 in August, is not too concerned. "It is true we have lost key players like Revishvili and Maisuradze, but Borg should be replaced well enough by Camilleri and the goalkeeper's position should also not be much of a problem – Nicky Vella should see to that.
"The important thing is that we get a good result in the first leg on Tuesday in Malta," he added. "We are confident we can do that. We are very well prepared and with Gilbert Agius studying our opponents well I am sure we will be giving it our all."
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