Taking part in their first-ever Champions League match since the competition’s rebranding, Maltese champions Hamrun Spartans are set to host Israeli powerhouses Maccabi Haifa at the Centenary Stadium on Tuesday in a thrilling first-leg clash of their first-round qualifying tie.
After a 30-year wait, Hamrun Spartans clinched another Maltese Premier League crown in the 2020-21 campaign. However, their involvement in a match-fixing scandal back in 2013 barred them from participating in the Champions League. Now, after rebuilding their relationship with UEFA, they are ready to represent Malta on the European stage for the first time since the 1991-92 season, when it was still known as the European Cup.
Hamrun Spartans’ past European campaigns were short-lived, but their dominance in Malta last season cannot be overlooked. They finished 19 points clear at the top, securing their ninth domestic title while conceding just 10 goals in 26 games. The Maltese champions have the odds stacked against them. But they can draw inspiration from their memorable 3-3 draw against Serbian giants Partizan Belgrade in the UEFA Europa Conference League playoff last year.
Their opponents, Maccabi Haifa, are no strangers to the European stage. After securing their third consecutive Israeli Premier League title, they faced the likes of Juventus, Paris Saint-Germain, and Benfica in last season’s Champions League group stage. Despite a remarkable victory over Juventus, they narrowly missed out on progressing to the Europa League knockout round on goal difference.
Under new management with 37-year-old Messay Dego at the helm, Maccabi Haifa aims to navigate the early rounds of the Champions League once again. While they faced setbacks in their warm-up friendlies, including losses to Slavia Prague and St Polten, their focus remains on avoiding an early exit from the tournament.
Both teams have undergone significant changes during the summer transfer window. Hamrun Spartans have brought in notable names such as goalkeeper Federico Marchetti, formerly of Lazio, Genoa, and Torino, while Maccabi Haifa has added new talent, including Germany Under-20 striker Erik Shuranov and playmaker Lior Refaelov.
As the match unfolds, all eyes will be on the Centenary Stadium, anticipating an enthralling clash between these two teams. While Hamrun Spartans’ defensive prowess was commendable in the Maltese league, Maccabi Haifa’s experience and quality make them favorites to secure a convincing win in this first-leg encounter. Hamrun Spartans will face an uphill battle in the return leg on July 18.