Hibernian this week head to Slovenia looking to remedy the ills of Sunday’s defeat to Glasgow City (a result that all but ends their title hopes for the season) by qualifying for the Last 32 of the UEFA Women’s Champions League for the second time.
It was hoped that the Edinburgh side would be in a position to make a bid to host their Group 3 qualifying opponents ZNK Pomurje (Slovenia), Cardiff Met WFC (Wales) and Nike Tbilisi (Georgia), in the knowledge that playing on Scottish soil was something that league rivals Glasgow City used to great effect as they began their run to the last 16 of last year’s competition. Unfortunately, this hasn’t been the case for Grant Scott’s side and now they face three games across six days in the former Yugoslav state. Here at Leading the Line we thought we’d preview what will face the Hibees as they look to earn a place in the knockout stages.
Host Venue: Beltinci
The Slovenian town of Beltinci, the home of host side ZNK Pomurje Beltinci, is located forty minutes east of Maribor with the capital Ljubljana a further one hour and twenty down the road. There is no direct flights and so the journey itself will be a tiring multi stage affair.
Games will be played at The Bratonci Sports Centre, home of the Slovenian champions, and from the few pictures and video clips available, it looks like the grass pitch has seen better days. This could provide challenging to a Hibernian side who normally play their quick, attacking game on the far more predictable artificial surfaces of Scottish football. Further challenges will come in the conditions with temperatures set to sail past the 30 degree mark as the weekend approaches with all games taking place either in the late morning or afternoon.
These cumulative conditions mean that the draw is considerably harder than it may first appear on paper.
ZNK Pomurje Betnici – Slovenian Champions
This will be The Yellow-Blues seventh Champions League campaign however this will be their first since the 2016/17 season. They have failed to progress past this stage in their previous six attempts including last time out, when they were also hosts, as they finished behind Swiss side FC Zurich. They reclaimed the Slovenian title last season from Olimpia Ljubjlana winning all 21 league games in the process as they cruised to a seventh national crown.
The squad does have talent of note. In Slovenia’s most recent international squad Pomurje were represented by four players with 21-year-old striker Spela Kobl the pick of the bunch. Her 46 goals from 21 goals saw her finish last season as the league’s top goalscorer and mirrored her chart leading performance from the 2017/18 campaign. If Hibernian are to progress the final game against their Slovenian hosts will be key but you cannot under-estimate the trump card of home advantage that Nuša Ladinek and her side possess.
Cardiff Met WFC – Welsh Champions
The last time Hibernian faced Welsh opposition at this stage of the competition it was in 2017 where they defeated Met’s perennial title rivals Swansea City 5-0. The side, based out of the Cardiff Metropolitan University, have won five of the last six Welsh Premier League titles but much like the hosts have never got past the qualifying stage of the Champions League, last year finishing third in their group with their single point coming from a draw against Maltese side Birkirkara.
Head coach Dr. Kerry Harris is under no illusions of the step up in quality her side will face and said as much in the press conference held prior to their flight to the Balkans. In particular she identified the changes in style and increase in physicality but she was also confident that they come into the games having had a productive pre-season including a 2-1 victory against city rivals Cardiff City.
Nike Tblisi – Georgian Champions
They have no website, no Wikipedia page, no social media and even the official UEFA website for the tournament doesn’t have a badge against their name in the list of competing teams. A first run Google search will give you directions to the nearest Nike superstore in the Georgian capital but nothing about the football side. Facing Nike Tbilisi is well and truly a trip into the unknown.
In fact such is the current level of organisation currently attributed to the women’s game in Georgia there is a very good chance the side Grant Scott and his team face will be vastly different from the one that they can prepare for with the squad potentially propped up by imports from the Georgian national side.
A few more Google searches later and what you can determine is that they are once again leading the way in the domestic championship and that in this, their debut appearance in the tournament, they will be hoping to go further than the country’s only other representative WFC Martve by progressing to the knock out stages.
That seems unlikely but given how little is known about the side anything is possible.
On the face of things Hibernian have been handed a kind draw and they have quality and experience throughout the squad. They are the only team of the four to play knockout European football but the conditions, travel, and of course, the great unknown that this stage of the tournament brings, means that the Hibees will have to be on form to book their place in the next round.
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