Ferencváros vs Valletta preview

The following is a preview of the upcoming Champions League qualifier between Ferencváros and Valletta FC.  A collaboration between Chris Barrett of hungarianfootball.com and Maltese football expert Gianluca Gia 

After defeating Ludogorets last week, Ferencváros find themselves in familiar, albeit dangerous waters as they look to break a horrible run of early exits in Europe.

The last time Fradi reached the group stage of a European competition was 15 years ago in the UEFA Cup – the first year they introduced a group stage to UEFA’s precursor to the Europa League.  Since then, they’ve never advanced beyond the second qualifying round of any continental competition. 

They’re in good company this week as their opponents, Malta champions Valletta FC, have never progressed beyond the second qualifying round in their history.  So, what happens when an unstoppable force meets an immovable object?  We will find out shortly.

Green Eagles Soaring

The most remarkable trait so far this year for the Hungarian champions was their ability to set the tone in their games against Ludogorets.  They came out of the gates against their first round opponents with a sharp attack and took an early lead in both legs.  Winning in Razgrad was a pleasant surprise for fans of Hungarian football as it was the first Champions League tie Ferencváros had won in 15 years – way back in the day when they defeated Albanian side Tirana on away goals. 

Depth everywhere

Sergei Rebrov looks to have a healthy and suspension-free squad to choose from.  Oleksandr Zubkov has scored and added two assists while Tokmac Chol Nguen has two goals so far in Champions League play. A recent friendly match featured most of the players that didn’t play against Ludogorets and Rebrov will have the luxury of selecting his team with depth at almost every position.  Isael, and Mikhail Signevich are available after serving their suspensions, along with a seemingly heathy Davide Lanzafame are all ready to make an impact.

Not their first rodeo

Ferencváros have played Maltese opponents in continental competition before and it’s historically been a positive experience.  Their brushes with the island nation go all the way back to the Cup Winner’s Cup in 1972 where they defeated Floriana in the first round.  More recently, Fradi defeated Birkirkara 6-0 on aggregate in the 2003-04 UEFA Cup qualifying round, and then squeezed past Sliema Wanderers in the first qualifying round of the 2014-15 Europa League.  

Who are Valletta F.C.?

Valletta FC have won the Maltese Premier League 25 times

Valletta are considered one of the most successful and supported clubs in Maltese football.  They have won the Maltese Premier League three of the past four seasons, and have a long (if not successful) European record; qualifying for continental football each of the last 12 seasons. They’ve had run-ins with with Hungarian clubs in the past, losing to Haladás in the Cup Winners Cup in 1975 and then to Honvéd in the European Cup in 1980. 

Morale is high

Valletta have never reached beyond this stage but there is cause for cautious optimism in Malta as their champions got past F91 Dudelange in the first qualifying round. Quite a feat as the Luxembourg champs reached the group stage of the Europa League last year.  Also, Gżira United got past Hajduk Split in the Europa League first qualifying round so there is an atmosphere of euphoric hope among fans of Maltese football these days.

The attack

According to Malta football expert Gianluca Lia, Valletta have a quality side with a number of offensive threats.  Kyrian Nwoko, Mario Fontanella and Douglas Packer lead an attacking line across the top of a 4-3-3.  Nwoko is a 22 year-old Maltese full international, and Fontanella is an Italian forward who scored 14 goals in 21 appearances for Valletta last season.  Packer is a former Juventus youth player who has been a bit of a globetrotter.  At 32 years of age the Brazilian joined the club this summer as a replacement for departed striker Miguel Alba.  Alba was considered the best player in the league, scoring 13 goals and 15 assists in 32 games last season and Valletta are hoping Packer is the answer for now. 

Lia believes that another Italian forward, Matteo Piciollo is the best foreigner in the league and could be a factor if he can get healthy in time for this tie.

At right back they have Enmy Pena Beltre, a Dominican international who is skilled with pace and “can shoot from everywhere.”  Enough to give someone like Marcel Heister nightmares?  Well, that remains to be seen.

With midfielder Rowan Muscat returning to the lineup after being suspended for the second leg against Dudelange, it’s possible they’ll line up similar to how they approached last round’s first leg.  However, with midfielder Santiago Malano out injured, it’s likely they’ll be forced to use either Nicolas Pulis or Shaun Dimech – both of whom have youth on their side, but perhaps not experience.

Cracks in the armor

Valletta manager Darren Abdilla has had his team in Budapest since Monday training and preparing mentally for the game. In a pre-match press conference he hinted at some weaknesses he might exploit saying,  “We analyzed the Ferencváros battle against Ludogorec, and we saw that the summer [transfers] were very good and the performance of the [wide attackers] was striking. But we also saw points in the team that didn’t work so well, we hope we can use them.”

Valletta defender Jean Borg: “Ferencváros is a good team with good players, but nothing is impossible in football. We will add everything and hope that it will be enough for a good result!”

Being prepared

It’s not a surprise that Ferencváros are heavy favorites in this tie, but the collective conscious of the Hungarian football community knows all-too-well of their teams’ capacity to allow minnows to appear as sharks in high-profile games.  Ferencváros goalkeeper Dénes Dibusz outlined their opponents biggest threat: “We need to be mindful of [Valletta’s counterattack] and play confidently and accurately in the middle and at the back of the pitch, creating the opportunity for our creative players to score goals. We have been working throughout the week in the spirit of gaining an advantage that we can legitimately trust to advance.

Prediction

The main concern for Ferencváros will be one of concentration among the players.  For many of them this is their first taste of Champions League action and if they can remain focused they should be able to control their home tie.  Their defense has been impressive, but lapses (like Heister’s own-goal off a set piece in the second leg against Ludogorets) must be eliminated.

Valletta are playing with house money and aren’t expected to advance so the pressure is squarely on their opponents.  If they can take advantage of that and capitalize on mental errors they could create some panic. 

I think Rebrov has Fradi playing intelligently and they’re learning from their mistakes.  The depth he has will allow him to make impact substitutions at any stage of the game for any situation.  It will take quite an effort for Valletta to get a result at Groupama, but I can’t see that happening.  

Chris Barrett’s first leg prediction:  Ferencváros 3-0 Valletta

Gianluca Gia’s first leg prediction:  Ferencváros 3-1 Valletta