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Buttigieg seeks improvement

Birkirkara and Marsaxlokk suffered identical 4-0 defeats to Croatian opponents in the opening legs of their UEFA Cup first qualifying round matches.

Birkirkara and Marsaxlokk suffered identical 4-0 defeats to Croatian opponents in the opening legs of their UEFA Cup first qualifying round matches.

A 4-0 upset in the away leg a fortnight ago has all but ended Birkirkara's aspirations of qualification but the Stripes are determined to put on a stronger showing against Croatia's Hajduk Split in this evening's UEFA Cup first qualifying round second leg tie at the National Stadium (kick-off 6 p.m.).

Birkirkara found the going tough against Hajduk in the first leg at the Poljud Stadium, falling two goals behind in the opening 24 minutes. Hajduk added two more goals after the break for a comfortable victory.

John Buttigieg, the Birkirkara coach, hopes his team will offer a stiffer challenge to the six-time Croatian champions this evening as the Stripes will be looking to exit the competition on a high note.

"It's a known fact that we are facing another difficult match against Hajduk Split," Buttigieg told The Times yesterday.

"We knew beforehand that Hajduk were very tough opponents and during the first leg, they showed their strength with their precise ball possession and excellent technical skills. My players did all they could to try and limit the damage but Hajduk were on a different level.

"For the second leg, our players are in a better physical shape and that should give us a better chance of providing a stronger challenge. Maybe qualification is out of reach but we still want to produce a good performance in front of our fans."

The Birkirkara coach may be forced into two changes from the first leg as Shaun Bajada has a foot problem and Lee Lombardi is hampered by a knee injury.

Bajada's absence could pave the way for Angus Buhagiar to start after his lively display as a second-half substitute in Split. New signing Trevor Cilia, who joined Birkirkara from Floriana earlier this week, is not available as he was signed after the UEFA deadline.

Hajduk come into the match in high spirits after starting their league campaign with a 1-0 home win over Zardar last weekend. Senijad Ibricic, who struck Hajduk's opener against Birkirkara in the first leg, netted the winner four minutes from time.

Buttigieg reckons his team must show better tactical discipline if they are to improve on their first-leg performance.

"Hajduk are an organised outfit," Buttigieg said. "They are very good at keeping possession and have some very fast players. It's important that we start the match confidently. In the first leg, we conceded a goal after only three minutes and that was a psychological blow for our players.

"Good tactical organisation is a must but we also have to try and use our possession effectively. Hajduk may be the stronger team but we too have players who can pose them a few problems."

The match against Hajduk comes just over a week before Birkirkara clash with rivals Valletta in the Super Cup final tomorrow week.

Buttigieg sounded pleased with his team's pre-season preparations so far and said that a good performance against Hajduk could help to instil more confidence in his players.

"This match is important for our team," the Birkirkara coach said.

"European matches are an opportunity to test ourselves against better opposition and the players can learn a lot from these experiences. I think a good result against Hajduk will help to boost the players' confidence as we finalise our preparations for next week's Super Cup final against Valletta.

"After five weeks of training, I'm satisfied with the level reached by the players but now it's time to show that we are ready for the domestic challenges. Our fans expect a good performance from us and hopefully, we will not let them down."

Referee: David Mckeon (Ireland).

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