Former Italy forward Fabrizio Miccoli marked his UEFA Europa League return by helping Maltese side Birkirkara make history and earn an exciting tie against West Ham United.
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"We have written another chapter in the club's history by setting up a tie against top English side West Ham," said Birkirkara midfielder Rowen Muscat after former Italian international Fabrizio Miccoli inspired his new team to an impressive UEFA Europa League victory against Ulisses on Thursday.
Malta has its fair share of English Premier League and Serie A fans, so the prospect of the Hammers visiting the Mediterranean island to face Miccoli's latest employers has been making the headlines.
The former Perugia, Juventus, Benfica, Fiorentina, Palermo and Lecce forward was in fine form – scoring the opener and making another – as the Stripes registered a 3-1 win in Armenia to earn an exciting second qualifying round meeting with Slaven Bilić's men.
The Maltese Cup holders received a heroes' welcome when they returned home from Yerevan in the early hours of Friday. "We played a great match," a visibly tired Miccoli told UEFA.com following their four-hour flight. "The team is on the right track and all of us are happy."
After finishing third in the league and lifting the cup for the fifth time, Birkirkara invested heavily this summer – pulling off a transfer coup to sign Miccoli on a 12-month deal. The 36-year-old, who has 18 UEFA Champions League appearances to his name, has since captured the imagination of the football-crazy island and was the star turn against Ulisses after showing glimpses of his talent in the goalless first leg.
Another key protagonist in Birkirkara's second-leg win, Malta midfielder Muscat, added: "Getting through to the next round of the Europa League after playing only two competitive matches [this season] is quite an achievement in itself. Progressing – and scoring three goals away from home – is a big thing. We are delighted with the performance and the way we approached this match. Now we must remain focused for next week and [the trip to] West Ham."
In goal, meanwhile, Malta No1 Justin Haber missed the second Ulisses game after suffering a hamstring injury in the first leg. Reserve keeper Ini Atkpan took his place and made five saves to help Birkirkara through, inspiring praise from his colleague. "I would like to congratulate Atkpan, who deputised in goal in my absence," said Haber. "Hopefully I will be ready and fit for selection against West Ham."
Pulling the strings, coach Giovanni Tedesco will be hoping to field his strongest possible lineup for the first leg in east London on Thursday. The Italian tactician has already made a notable impact during his short time in charge, Birkirkara having survived a qualifying round in this competition for the first time since 2001/02 – and he will once again look to Miccoli as the Maltese outfit strive to record an against-the-odds triumph over their famous opponents.