BY ALAN TEMPLE – @CCP_Sport
Birkirkara captain Gareth Sciberras is determined to strike an early blow for Malta ahead of their World Cup qualification clash against Scotland by dumping Hearts out of Europe.
Gordon Strachan’s first fixture on the road to Russia is a trip to the Ta’Qali Stadium on September 4 and he will be acutely aware that a flying start is required if they are to progress from a group including Slovakia, Slovenia and the ‘Auld Enemy’, England.
The Birkirkara side charged with defeating Hearts tomorrow evening is likely to include at least six full internationalists from the Mediterranean island.
And Sciberras, with 34 caps to his name, is eager to show Scottish viewers that the encounter in Malta will not be a walkover.
The 33-year-old told Capital City Press: “The country certainly has one eye on the World Cup qualifiers coming up, and particularly the prospect of playing against England and Scotland.
“These are seen as massive matches for the people locally.
“It makes the tie against Hearts even more interesting, as it is a good opportunity for our players from Malta to show what they can do against British opposition ahead of those fixtures.
“At Birkirkara, we have some younger players who are on the verge of coming into the national team and a few experienced internationals who are in there for every squad – I’m sure they will be very determined to impress.
”We are a small nation, a small island and everyone understand the limitations in terms of facilities and the level of the league. However, I believe we can put up a good fight when the Scotland game comes.”
He smiled: “Would us beating Hearts give Malta an early advantage? Yes, why not.”
Birkirkara’s Europa League exploits of last term, when they took West Ham to a penalty shootout before an agonising defeat, have been cited as an example of the task facing the Jambos in the second qualifying round clash.
And while he looks back on that “journey” with fondness, he is quick to point out that a very different side will take to the field tomorrow evening, with former Italy star Fabrizio Miccoli the most notable member of that side to have left the club.
Nevertheless, he has warned the visitors that Birkirkara have assembled a squad of quality and experience.
He continued: “Last season was fantastic for the club and a great journey. We had the glamour and the prestige of playing a team as big as West Ham and I think we did ourselves justice.
“The team has changed a lot since then, we have a lot of new faces in squad, but they are experienced players and have played international football, so we hope for another special night.
”I wouldn’t say we are over-confident, but we go into the game with a lot of belief and the right mentality.”
Sciberras, meanwhile, insists Hearts cannot use the searing heat of Malta as an excuse if they wilt at the Hibernians Stadium, with temperatures of 35 degrees Celsius expected.
Speaking from Malta yesterday, he joked: “Only 35 degrees? It is 39 degrees today!
“No, being fair, these conditions are the same for both teams – and people seem to forget that playing in these conditions is not ideal for our players either, albeit we are more accustomed to it. You just need to adapt.
“I don’t believe it will be the deciding factor, just as the colder weather won’t be a deciding factor when we come to Edinburgh.”