Vardar vs Malmo
The venue is Mladost Stadium in Strumica, the score is 1-1 and the degrees will be sweaty. From the first leg, Malmo tried hard but Vardar returns to Macedonia with the upper hand. The Macedonian champions will come into the game with confidence after such a positive result, and this is the biggest opportunity for FK Vardar in recent years.
One of the big mistakes is to underestimate your opponents, which seems to be the problem in Malmo. The players expressed their disappointment of the result, but at the same time also expect the same type of dominance away from home, and claiming to not be impressed by Vardar and continiously compare them to a "middle team in our league". This can be mind games, but they need to enter the games with respect, or else it will bite back. This was certainly the case in Sweden in the first leg.
Malmo are coming from a 3-3 draw versus Sirius in Allsvenskan after blowing a 3-1 lead in the last ten minutes. To concede three goals at home, is not really boosting any confidence going into the most important match this year. The defense is continuing to be the weak factor.
While Malmo created a fierce atmosphere at their stadium and started the game in a very high tempo, Vardar survived the storm. When the opportunities appeared, the Macedonians took advantage and scored the opening goal after a low shot between the legs of a defender and post-in. Malmo turned up the tempo once more and got level at 1-1 via a free kick that was headed in. The margins were not on the Swedes side after the ball was bouncing on Vardars goal line in the 94th minute, and the home supporters were expressing their disappointment when the final whistle concluded the game. It was a huge miscalculation for Malmo who on beforehand spoke about putting the game to bed with 2 or 3 goals margin. Instead, they are heading to a very warm town of Strumica, with huge pressure on their shoulders to play on Mladost Stadium which is far from quality. The pitch is poor and the weather will be something that Malmo have never experienced before.
Let us stay on the weather factor for a bit. Malmo players are already talking about this topic more than anything else - it will be difficult to play their usual way with high pressure, high tempo and constant attacking, as they can not do this in those temperatures and humidity. The Macedonians will be more involved and create more than we saw on Swedbank Stadium last week.
Malmo could not count on captain Markus Rosenberg (13/4) or defender Behrang Safari (11/1) (vice captain), nor the experienced center back Rasmus Bengtsson, or striker Alexander Jeremejeff (9/2) in the first leg. It was significant for them, as they were missing their most experienced players with a ton of international knowledge. Captain Markus Rosenberg is a club icon with a big Malmo heart who steps up in critical moments. It is very likely that he will play even if he is not fully fit. Malmos entire season is on stake, and therefore even Behrang Safari will likely also be playing, despite his fitness not being great. He struggles with calf cramps and is normally substituted in every match as he can not complete full 90 minutes.
Overall, the Swedes have fitness issues on some key pieces. The hot weather will not help that. For a team that already struggles to score goals, it will be the hardest challenge Malmo will face in 2017.
Vardar are 28-7-0 at home in the Macedonian league, this is combined in the last two season. Regardless if the Macedonian league is overall weak, it shows the winning culture and mentality of the team. Vardar is a very stubborn team who rarely lose on 'home soil' domestically. Surely this might not be their primary stadium for home games, but they have played on the pitch several times before and are used to the conditions. The organization owner - Sergey Samsonenko, has always visioned this scenario when he started to invest money in the club. He wants to make something successful with this club, in the same way he did with Vardars handball team - this is a huge opportunity for the whole club and country in football terms.
Vardar are facing a the Swedish champions in the best possible moment because the squad situation in Malmo is on the decline, and they are taking a desperate approach to this match. Their players are not 'clicking' at the right time compared to previous years when Malmo qualified for Champions League group stages after beating Salzburg and Celtic. The situation today is much different, despite a compitent squad - the injuries, fitness and form is pointing elsewhere.
What speaks in favor of Malmo? They are more organized, and more experienced and the fact that if they would progress versus Vardar - they will face rivals Copenhagen in the next round, which would be the biggest game in the Nordic region of all time. Only a bridge separate the two cities Malmo and Copenhagen. This is something on the players minds, undoubtely. But first, they must survive Vardar.
In warm weather on a poor pitch in Strumica, goals are difficult to ask for. Especially since one team will have to go for it more than the other. I believe Vardar are good enough to handle a Malmo who are walking on their knees, despite their desperate approach. We could see in the first leg that Vardar could hold the ball and were dangerous when going forward the few times it happened. Malmo have not kept clean sheets lately and in these tough conditions, expect Vardar to score again. That should be enough to not lose.