KF Tirana have a mountain to climb if they are to meet Liverpool FC in the next round.
By Fatjon Pandovski
Having lost 2-0 in the home leg of their UEFA Champions League second qualifying round tie against PFC CSKA Sofia, KF Tirana's chances of progressing to the next round look slender.
However, with Friday's draw having paired the winners of the tie with reigning European champions Liverpool FC in the last round before the group stage, Sulejman Starova's men have received an even greater incentive in their battle to overcome the Bulgarian side on home soil tonight.
"Most likely we will play with the same formation and the same players as we did in the first leg," Starova told uefa.com. "If we want to overcome such a result against such a tough team we have to give our best. That's the bottom line. It's tough - very tough - but anything can happen. If the hope is not there then we shouldn't bother playing at all."
Starova believed that the result in the first leg flattered CSKA. "We played a very disciplined game for the most part," he said. "The players followed the plan and were very careful until a few minutes before the final whistle. A draw would have been a fair result, but that's football. We couldn't finish our chances and when you don't score, it's hard to win."
Starova added: "Our players have to understand, we need to be professional for the whole match and not take anything for granted. CSKA are very aggressive and physically strong but everything is possible." Captain Devi Muka agreed: "Our squad has good chemistry. The players play well together and the team is working together as a single unit."
Tirana impressed in reaching the second qualifying round as they overturned a two-goal deficit against Slovenian champions NK Gorica. Having lost 2-0 in the first leg, Starova's men were back on level terms after 45 minutes of the return fixture with goals from Altin Rraklli and Rezart Dabulla, with recent signing Hamdi Salihi scoring the winner just after half-time.
The arrival of Salihi, Arjan Pisha and Julian Ahmataj has filled in some of the gaps in Tirana's squad and the three players have made an exceptional adaptation to the team's tactical system. The team has been further strengthened by the relaxation of tension between the coach and veterans Muka and Rraklli.
In such an environment, Tirana have been less affected by the loss of defender Nevil Dede, who left following a disagreement with the club board. Dabulla has been able to fill the Albanian international's slot in the middle of defence adequately, thanks in part to goalkeeper Isli Hidi who made a number of terrific saves against Gorica in Tirana to help send his side through.
With the game in Sofia looming, Starova was keen to put his side through their paces. "We have to focus in training," he said. "We have to have good practice sessions and most importantly work on improving our physical fitness. Also, in Sofia we have to play with patience which we didn't do very much in the first match.
"We all have to be realistic for the outcome from the battle with CSKA," he added. "This is who we are and this is how much we can do. We can't think about Liverpool right now. It's too far ahead for us. We have to focus on what's next. To get to Liverpool we have to climb a very high mountain. We have to subdue CSKA first and then think about our next challenge."