HAJDUK SPLIT 1
GŻIRA UNITED 3
Kone 69, 90
(agg: 3-3; Gżira United through on away goals)
Hamed Kone was the toast of Gżira United last night as the Ivory Coast striker scored two fine goals to propel the Maroons to a 3-1 win over Hajduk Split in Croatia to secure the team’s place in the second qualifying round of the Europa League on the away goals rule.
This was an historic result for the Maroons who had never reached the second qualifying round of the competition. They will now face Lithuanian side Ventspils who lost to Teuta 1-0 in Albania but still progressed 3-1 on aggregate.
It was an extraordinary achievement for the Maroons, who after losing the first leg at the Centenary Stadium last week 2-0, looked down and out when they found themselves behind after only seven minutes of play.
Hajduk striker Bassel Jradi put the hosts ahead when he stabbed the ball past Gżira goalkeeper Justin Haber from routine distance.
But the Maroons refused to panic and they gradually came more into the picture and started sharing the exchanges with their opponents.
The Maroons’ fightback started on the restart.
In fact, Gżira managed to draw level when on 57 minutes when Arthur Oyama sent a dipping cross into the path of Jefferson who outjumped his marker to head the ball into the net.
Hajduk looked stunned while Gżira stepped up their efforts to find a second goal that would put them just one goal away from qualification.
Their efforts were rewarded 12 minutes later in spectacular fashion. Nikolai Muscat’s dipping pass found Kone on the edge of the area and the 31-year-old adjusted his body to perfection to hit the ball with a spectacular bicycle kick that gave no chance to the Hajduk goalkeeper.
The Maroons were now firmly believing that they could complete their remarkable comeback as they put more pressure on hosts defence.
When six minutes of added time were signalled by the fourth official it looked as though time was running out for Gżira.
But Kone had other plans as the Ivory Coast forward was picked again just outside the area by Jefferson and let fly a curling drive that flew into the top corner of the net to the delight of the Gżira clan in Croatia.
Gżira United's impressive qualification has drew the plaudits of everyone involved in Maltese football, including Valletta coach Darren Abdilla who was at the helm of the Maroons last season and was the one guided Gżira to European football for the first time in 35 years in 2017/2018.