Estonian sides Paide Linnameeskond and Flora Tallinn are both in action this evening in the second leg of the first preliminary round of the UEFA Conference League. Paide lead 3-2 on aggregate ahead of their game with Georgian side Dinamo Tbilisi in Pärnu, while Flora take a slender 1-0 advantage to Finland, where they face Seinäjoki.
For Paide head coach Karel Voolaid, getting off to a good start is crucial. "We have to start well and play like that throughout the game, without thinking about the score," said Voolaid at a press conference on Wednesday.
Voolaid also believes, that changes to the away goals rule make the task simpler. Until recently, goals scored away from home in European competitions counted double if the teams ended up level on aggregate after both legs. In previous years, Paide's 3-2 first leg win in Tbilisi would have meant even a 1-0 or 2-1 defeat in the second leg at home, would have been enough to see them through to the next round. However, under this season's rules, only an aggregate win will do, or, as Voolaid put it, now "Everybody knows what the score is."
Paide's victory away from home against Dinamo was a surprise for many, with the Georgian side strong favorites going into the tie.
Head Coach Voolaid put the result down to a solid team effort, with the whole team seemingly breathing in unison, and each player fulfilling their required roles. "While the old cliché says that the coach pulled the right cards from deck, it was actually the line-up that started (the game), which created a very strong foundation (for the victory). They ended up in the starting line-up because they were the best (players) for the occasion," said Voolaid.
"Of course, there are always some things that could be improved and done differently next time to make the result even better. I'm sure our opponents are (thinking) the same. The situation is pretty much as it was before the first game, it's just that now we know each other better," Voolaid added.
FC Flora Tallinn Head Coach Jürgen Henn said their second leg clash with Finnish side Seinäjoki would be tough, with the 13-time Meistriliiga champions prepared to go all the way to penalties to get the job done if necessary.
After winning 1-0 against Seinäjoki in the first leg at Tallinn's A le Coq Arena last week, a one goal defeat for Flora after 90 minutes in tonight's game would lead to two 15-minute periods of extra time. If the aggregate scores still remain level, the tie will be settled with a penalty shoot-out.
With that eventuality in mind, Henn has made sure to dedicate time this week to practicing penalties. However, the Flora coach admits that it is not always easy to prepare players for the pressure of taking a spot-kick during a match when the pressure is on.
"The difference between penalty shoot-outs in training and in the game is very big, it's difficult to create exactly that kind of atmosphere and tension in training. But we've been paying a lot of attention to penalties, we've been analyzing our previous shots and trying to find some patterns," said Henn.
Regardless of whether the tie goes all the way to penalties, Henn is aware that tonight's match in Finland will be a tough one for Flora. "Seinäjoki are strong at home and will maybe be a little more comfortable on this pitch," said Henn. "They are good individually, some (of their) players can decide games. They are strong physically and dangerous from set pieces, so we need to be careful in those situations" he added.
Though he said one or two players are carrying minor injuries, Henn expects to have a full-strength squad to choose from ahead of Thursday's match.
The second leg of the first preliminary round UEFA Conference League tie between Paide Linnameeskond kicks off at 19:00 Estonian time on Thursday at Pärnu's Rannastaadion. The match will also be broadcast live on ETV2. The winners will face Ararat-Armenia in the second preliminary round, with matches taking place on July 21 and 28.
Flora Tallinn's second leg match with Seinäjoki also gets underway at 19:00 Estonian time this evening, with a second preliminary round tie against Norwegian side Lilleström the reward for the victors.
Defeat on aggregate for Flora or Paide would mean the end of their European adventures for this season.
Estonian Champions FCI Levadia Tallinn will face Hibernians of Malta in the second preliminary round of the Conference League. Levadia dropped into the Conference League after exiting the Champions League at the first hurdle with a 6-1 defeat against Icelandic side Reykjavik Vikingur.
Editor: Michael Cole