DAVID SMITH - Monday, July 16, 2012
Three Americans begin their Champions League campaigns this week, with Bryan Gerzicich and Kiyrat Shmona visiting Zilina and Josh Gatt tasting his first European action against visiting Ventspils.
MSK Zilina - Ironi Kiyrat Shmona
Bryan Gerzicich and Israeli champions Kiyrat Shmona begin their second-ever trip to Europe on Tuesday, paying a visit to Slovakian winners MKS Zilina in the second round of Champions qualification.
Kiyrat Shmona's dominant season-long performance in the Israeli Premier League last season saw them with their first-ever entrance into Europe's top competition.
Their one other venture into Europe cam four years ago, when they qualified for the now-defunct UEFA Cup, where they were eventually ousted in the second round of qualification.
While their opponents Zilina are wily veterans of continental play, they could still have some issues passing the Israeli champions. Their crowning achievement came two years ago when they managed to reach the Champions League group stage, however their followup attempt saw them crash out at the hands of Icelandic opposition in 2011.
Zilina has faced Israeli opposition once before, having defeated Maccabi Tel Aviv over two legs in 2003, while Shmona's one other trip to Europe saw them make two trips to eastern Europe to face Montenegran and Bulgarian opponents.
Neither team is reporting any key absences.
Molde FK - FK Ventspils
In the midst of a strong run in league play, Molde should be favorites headed into the home leg of their two-game qualification round against Latvian champions FK Ventspils.
Molde are making their second trip to the Champions League qualifying rounds, hoping to repeat their first run of 1999 which saw them beat CSKA Moscow and Mallorca on their way to the group stage.
Latvian champions Ventspils have participated in continental play every season since 1999, however have become accustomed to seeing their runs fall well short of lasting past the summer months.
Only once have they found success against Norwegian teams, beating Valerenga in the Intertoto Cup in 1999. Their only recent noteworthy accomplishment in Europe was a surprising run through Champions League qualification in 2009, where they eventually lost out to Zürich in the final round, and had the honor of being placed in the Europa Group stage as a result of their efforts.
Both Molde and Ventspils are midway through their current league seasons. The Norwegian are beginning to look like the champions of last season, with the weekend's win over Valerenga bringing them to within a single point of first place.
Ventspils are faring slightly worse, sitting in third place in the Virsliga standings, with a seven-point gap keeping them from the top spot.
Molde will likely continue to be without midfielder Emmanuel Ekpo and defender Břrre Stenslid, both of whom missed the weekend's game with injuries.
Ventspils are not reporting any absences to their squad.
NK Maribor - Željezničar
Daniel Brkovic and Željezničar open their qualification campaign on Wednesday with a potentially tough visit to European veterans Maribor.
Brkovic joined the Sarajevo-based team in June from previous club Velez, and as a result will likely earn his taste of playing in continental competition.
The Slovenians are coming off of their first trip to the group stage in more than a decade, and with a largely disappointing showing yielding just a single draw against five losses, they will be eager to work their way into the latter rounds of qualifying in hopes of giving it another go.
Željezničar has seen regular early exits from their forays into Europe in recent years, although they do have some history of success, twice reaching the UEFA Cup late rounds before many of their current players were born.
Maribor just began their season over the weekend in style, racking up a trio of goals in a win over Gorica that gave them an early lead in the Slovenian PrvaLiga.
This could be a problem for the Željezničar squad, who are still nearly three weeks away from beginning their domestic season, and will likely be much farther behind in their preparations than their Slovenian counterparts.
For Maribor, defender Mitja Viler and midfielder Martin Milec are both expected to miss the game with injuries while forward Robert Berić is questionable.
Željezničar are not reporting any absences.