Riga FC v Gil Vicente (Conference League)
This past season, Gil Vicente finished fifth. In doing so, they not only sealed European qualification for the first time in the club’s 98-year history, but their fate as well. Manager Ricardo Soares left for Egyptian giants Al-Ahly, Brazilian winger Samuel Lino joined Atlético Madrid before heading to Valencia on loan, whilst diminutive midfield magician Pedrinho headed for newly promoted Turkish side Ankaragücü.
Founded in 2014, Riga made the jump to Latvia’s first division in 2016, winning three straight league titles from 2018 to 2020 before finishing fourth last season. Their European record is, admittedly, less impressive; they lost in the first round of Europa League qualifying to CSKA-Sofia on penalties in 2018, and the following year, they were edged on penalties by Dundalk in the first round of Champions League qualifying before being transferred over to Europa and beating Piast Gliwice and HJK before losing to Copenhagen in the play-offs. They would repeat this pattern in 2020/21, losing to Maccabi Tel Aviv, beating Tre Fiori, before losing to Celtic in the third qualifying round of Europa, whilst 2021/22 would see them lose to Malmö in the Champions League, beat Shkëndija and and Hibernians, before losing to Lincoln Red Imps in the Europa Conference League play-offs.
Unlike Gil Vicente, Riga have been able to string together a run of competitive matches due to the fact that the Latvian Higher League runs from March to November. The month of July would see them eliminated from the Latvian Football Cup by 10-man Valmiera, thrash Derry City 4-0 and Ružomberok 5-1 on aggregate to advance to the Europa Conference League third qualifying round, and win two games and draw once in the league. Riga have yet to advance to a group stage of any of the three European competitions they have played in, and their sole victories have come against teams from Poland, Finland, San Marino, Macedonia, Malta, Slovakia and Ireland. Still, they should not be underestimated. Speaking to a Latvian football expert:
“They are in very good form at the moment, in the league maybe they have struggled all season long, because they rotate the squad a lot compared to the league and European games. At the moment, coach Sandro Perković has found his best eleven and he is sticking to it, which is very surprising if we talk historically about Riga and stability in the lineup. There are many new faces and although the starting eleven is playing well in Europe, it must be remembered that five of the eleven players who will likely start against Gil arrived in the summer transfer window, which includes the two starting centre-backs. The biggest losses are in the injured list, because one of the league’s best central defenders according to analytics data (Baba Musah) has been out for several months, as well as the central defender of the Latvian NT (Antonijs Černomordijs) is out for a longer period of time, so Riga had to open its wallet and quickly look for reinforcements at that position.”
At the Skonto Stadium, where the match will take place on Wednesday, Riga have played 11 European qualifiers, they have lost only once (0-1 against Glasgow Celtic, conceding a goal only in stoppage time). However, they have defeated teams such as Denmark’s Copenhagen and played to a draw against Sweden’s Malmö, with an overall record (7 wins, 3 draws and 1 loss with a goal ratio of 13 to 5).”
I think this result could go either way, but I’m willing to believe that the first leg will be a high-scoring affair. For one, Ivo Vieira has always been somewhat of a unicorn in Portugal, an attack-minded manager who prioritizes getting on the score sheet rather than shutting up shop, something that has kept him a busy client in the Iberian nation’s tumultuous coaching environment, and something that has also cost him dearly on several occasions; apart from his spells at Moreirense and Vitória, both of which ended after a year, and his spell at Marítimo’s B team, which ended after a year and a half, Vieira’s seven other managerial stints have lasted between five and ten months.
Secondly, the strikers. Whilst Gil Vicente have suffered a litany of departures including right back Zé Carlos, winger Samuel Lino and ex Riga man and midfield playmaker Pedrinho, they have kept hold of Fran Navarro, which is no small feat. The 24-year-old Spanish striker scored 16 goals in 31 league appearances in his debut Primeira campaign, and he has picked up where he left off with six goals in preseason. Riga, meanwhile, have their own 24-year-old marksman in Argentine forward Marcelo Torres, who opened the scoring in their 3-0 win over Ružomberok on July 21, before following it up three days later with a goal in a 2-1 win against Spartaks.
Thirdly, Gil are still adapting to life under a new manager and will likely need time to reach their peak defensive organization, whilst Riga’s 24-year-old goalkeeper Nils Toms Puriņš is lacking in big-game experience and could suffer in a high-pressure baptism of fire. “Puriņš is playing excellently this season and has won the position of the first goalkeeper, ousting national team goalkeeper Roberts Ozola following his injury, but he doesn’t have much experience in big games and has made a few mistakes with his feet in pre-season friendlies. Who knows what can happen under this pressure?”
Wolfsberger v Gzira United (Conference League)
This interesting match-up pits Austrian Bundesliga outfit WAC against Maltese team Gzira United. Gzira came through the tie of the round in their previous game against Serbian team FK Radnicki Nis, winning on penalties after a 2-2 draw at home and a 3-3 draw away. Wolfsberg are beginning their European journey here for the season, having tested themselves against Serie A title-holders AC Milan last week.
WAC were beaten 5-0 in that friendly encounter in Klagenfurt – their European venue, around 45 minutes away from their usual home – yet manager Robin Dutt gave run-outs to several youngsters, rotating heavily from the expected starting XI. For 40 minutes they held firm against the impressive Italians, but eventually the quality of the heavy-hitters like Rafael Leao showed through, leaving WAC powerless. Nonetheless, right back Adis Jasic was very impressive at winning challenges and getting forward down the flank, and the main worry would have been that new striker Nikos Vergos looked way off the pace.
Gzira somehow edged through to this tie after an incredible match in Serbia. Goals from Jefferson and Maxuell Samurai saw them recover 12 minutes into stoppage time, and again three minutes from the end of extra time, but the quality of the Nis defending was largely abysmal, gifting them space in the area, which Wolfsberg defenders Dominik Baumgartner and Luca Lochoshvili are unlikely to repeat. The Maltese side looked shaky at the back themselves, struggling to deal with any balls into the box, and making rough challenges under pressure. They only went through thanks to some ridiculously good finishing, and a slice of luck with the penalty kicks, and it would take something special to see that again.
WAC are almost unheard of outside of Austria, but their European campaigns in recent years have seen them impress in the Europa League groups twice, troubling some much bigger names in the process. We’d back them to lead the tie after the first leg, and the likes of Tai Baribo and new man Konstantin Kerschbaumer should provide enough goal threat up front, even if they’re struggling for clean sheets of late.
Dynamo Kyiv v Sturm Graz (Champions League)
Sturm Graz will travel to Lódz in Poland to take on Dynamo Kyiv – the Ukrainian outfit are playing their European home games across the border while the war with Russia continues – full of confidence after beating perennial Bundesliga winners Salzburg 2-1. Danish youngster Rasmus Højlund was the match-winner, charging down opposition goalkeeper Philipp Kӧhn for the first goal before rounding off a blistering, Haaland-esque solo move for the second.
Opponents Dynamo have yet to commence their Ukrainian Premier League campaign, which is scheduled to get under way towards the end of August, but have played a series of friendlies in recent months and knocked out Fenerbahce in the last qualifying round of the competition. The second leg of that tie was marred by swathes of Turkish fans chanting Vladimir Putin’s name – an act that was met with anger from the international community and is currently being investigated by European football’s governing body, UEFA.
The two clubs have only ever met on one occasion – a friendly during the 2017/18 winter break which the Grazers won 2-0 in southern Spain. We think Christian Ilzer’s men will again be the favourites going into this tie, even without last season’s top scorer Jakob Jantscher, who is still out with torn muscle fibres. They are certainly a tough team to beat right now, which makes us tempted to go for a Sturm Graz win and draw double chance bet.
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