Nigeria duo of Ibrahim Rasheed and Iyayi Believe Atiemwen would be in action as last season’s Champions League surprise package Sheriff Tiraspol begin their quest to make the group stage of this year’s tournament with the first leg of their first-round Qualifying battle with Bosnian champions Zrinjski Mostar on Wednesday evening.
Either Maribor or Shakhtyor Soligorsk will await the victors of this first-round contest in the next stage, and the visitors are out to produce more shocks on the continental stage.
With 26 wins, six draws and only one defeat to their name from the 2021-22 Bosnian Premier League season, Zrinjski were the nation’s unstoppable force en route to the title and finished a whopping 27 points clear of closest challengers Tuzla City.
The Noblemen’s emphatic season ended a four-year drought without winning the top-flight crown and represented their second success overall, but laying down a marker in Europe is something that Zrinjski are yet to truly accomplish.
This week’s hosts have never progressed further than the second Qualifying round of the Champions League and lost on penalties to APOEL in the third round of Europa League Qualifying two years ago, so history is certainly not on their side as they endeavour to keep their magnificent unbeaten run going.
Under the tutelage of Sergej Jakirovic, Zrinjski have gone 19 competitive games without defeat since a Bosnian Cup loss to Tuzla all the way back in October, and they have already dispatched Mura and Varazdin in summer friendlies by an aggregate score of 5-1.
A new chapter in the history books had already been written when Sheriff Tiraspol became the first-ever Moldovan club to reach the group stages of the Champions League last term, defeating the likes of Alashkert, Red Star Belgrade and Dinamo Zagreb en route.
The side formerly led by Yuriy Vernydub were expected to be the resident whipping boys in Group D but opened their campaign with stunning victories over Shakhtar Donetsk and eventual champions Real Madrid, and a highly respectable third-placed finish earned them a spot in the Europa League knockout rounds.
Penalties would ultimately signal the end of Sheriff’s European conquest against Braga, despite winning 2-0 in their last-32 first leg, and the newest continental journey for the 20-time Moldovan champions begins under the fresh tutelage of Stjepan Tomas.
Sheriff ended their domestic season unbeaten in 11 league and cup matches on their way to yet another silverware double, and Tomas’s side will hope to live up to their favourites tag during their inaugural meeting with Zrinjski at Stadion pod Bijelim Brijegom.
Zrinjski will not go into the first leg unscathed by any means, as attackers Dragan Juranovic and Irfan Hadzic are struggling with knee injuries, so captain Nemanja Bilbija will bear the weight of the attacking expectation.
New signing Nikola Mandic is in line to support the skipper in Jakirovic’s front two, while a trio of young Dinamo Zagreb loanees in Petar Sucic, Niko Jankovic and Mario Cuze will all hope to make their mark in Europe.
As for Sheriff, last season’s Champions League star Sebastien Thill is no longer on the books following the end of his loan spell from Niederkorn in Luxembourg, while Adama Traore has also departed in a £1.8m move to Ferencvaros.
As a result, a spot has opened up in the attack for Iyayi Atiemwen to make his competitive debut for the club and Tomas is not reported to be dealing with any injury concerns ahead of the first leg.
Zrinjski Mostar possible starting lineup:
Soldo; Corluka, Jakovljevic, Barisic, Bekic; Malekinusic, Savic, Zlomislic, Cuze; Mandic, Bilbija
Sheriff Tiraspol possible starting lineup:
Abalora; Evangelou, Radeljic, Kiki, Julien; Badolo, Kyabou, Lushkja; Pernambuco, Rasheed, Atiemwen