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European Spotlight: HSK Zrinjski Mostar & Predicted Villa Lineup

After a less than ideal start to Aston Villa's UEFA Europa Conference League campaign, Unai Emery's men will be looking to bounce back at home against Bosnian side HSK Zrinjski this coming Thursday night. On paper this should be the easiest game in the group, however AZ Alkmaar probably thought the exact same thing before losing 4-3 to Zrinjski in dramatic fashion in their opening fixture.

This article exists to shine a spotlight on Villa's upcoming opponents so that you can know everything you need to about a team who many Villans may have never even heard of before the UECL draw was made.

You can also read our European Spotlight on Legia Warsaw here.

Brief History

HŠK Zrinjski Mostar is a club based out of Bosnia and Herzegovina that plays its football in the Bosnian Premier League. Their history is rather disjointed due to both war time bans as well as Bosnia and Herzegovina not gaining independence until 1992. Before then, Zrinjski hadn't officially played a game of football since 1943 due to them being one of a number of clubs banned in 1945 after the Yugoslav Partisans accused them of being a tool for nationalist propaganda during and following the end of World War II. After being restored in 1992, the club would only play friendlies for two years before the Herzeg-Bosnia Football Federation was founded in 1994. Since then Zrinjski has been the most successful team in the league, winning the title a record 8 times, as well as winning their domestic cup on 2 occasions. They comfortably won the league last season by 20 points, and currently sit in 4th place this season only 6 points behind the league leaders with a game in hand.

When it comes to playing in Europe, however, Zrinjski has had very little to shout about. They've made it to the qualification rounds of both the UEFA Champions League and the Europa League on a few occasions but have never been able to qualify for the tournaments proper. Qualifying for the UECL this season actually marks the first time that Zrinjski has made it to a group stage of a European competition. They achieved this by defeating Icelandic club Breiðablik in the third round of qualifying. In fact it's actually the first time that any side from Bosnia and Herzegovina has ever qualified for the group stage of a European competition so this is a huge achievement for both club and country. With this in mind, it stands to reason that the upcoming game at Villa Park is the biggest game in Zrinjski's history, so there's no doubt they'll give everything they have in what they will undoubtedly view as a David vs. Goliath situation.

Players To Watch Out For

It's probably fair to say that HSK Zrinjski Mostar doesn't have a squad full of familiar names, even throughout their history it's hard to pinpoint a recognisable player outside of a short loan spell of an 18-year-old Luka Modrić in the 2003/4 season. However, that does not mean that this team can not cause Villa problems, just ask AZ Alkmaar about that! AZ were cruising in the first half of their opening group game and comfortably led 3-0 before Zrinjski made a remarkable comeback to win the game 4-3 and send AZ back to the Netherlands with their tails tucked between their legs. It was easily one of the biggest results in Zrinjski's history and one they'll surely still be buzzing over.

Pivotal to that victory was 29-year-old central midfielder player Zvonimir Kozulj who came off the bench at half-time to score 2 goals, and attacking midfielder Antonio Ivancic who claimed 2 assists. Elsewhere Mario Cuze, a left winger who formerly played for Dinamo Zagreb, is arguably their most creative player who will be looking to provide for in-form striker Nemanja Bilbija who already has 9 goals so far this season. Zrinjski will more than likely play in a classic 4-3-3 formation as they have done for the majority of the season. They look to use width with both their wingers and overlapping fullbacks who will both be looking to feed the ball to the striker. They will likely focus on trying to counter-attack Villa with pace down the wings. When it comes to their defence there's absolutely no doubt they can be got at. Although the comeback against AZ was hugely impressive, there's no denying that the defending that led to AZ Alkmaar's 3 goals was disastrous. Zrinjski have only managed to keep 1 clean sheet in the league all season so scoring for Villa shouldn't be a problem.

Villa's Predicted Lineup

When the fixtures were first announced you'd expect that Emery was looking at this home game against the group's worst team as an opportunity to potentially experiment with some youth players and rest as many first team starters as possible. However, after slipping up against Legia Warsaw which resulted in Villa now finding themselves bottom of the group, those plans may have changed. Also, when you consider it's the first European group stage match at Villa Park for well over a decade, we can probably expect to see a relatively strong lineup. With that in mind, we might well see something quite similar to the team that lined up against Legia Warsaw.

Zrinjski should be the sort of team that allows Tielemans to play himself into form and their defence shouldn't cause too many problems for the likes Jhon Duran and Leon Bailey. Having said that, Bailey did miss this past weekend with a small hamstring injury so there's a chance he may not be risked in the week either. This would clear the way for either Moussa Diaby, Bertrand Traore, or maybe even Nicolo Zaniolo to take up a more attacking role. We could also see Jacob Ramsey get his first start of the season having come off the bench to score a wonderful goal against Brighton.

The backline is where decisions can get a bit tricky. We know that Emery isn't keen on starting Lucas Digne twice in a week if he can help it, but with Moreno still doubtful he may have little choice. What we may see again is John McGinn come out of position to take up the left back role while likely keeping Pau Torres in place for a bit of security. Hopefully we can also see the return of Diego Carlos who was back from injury and on the bench on the weekend.

Predicted lineup:

The Reverse Fixture

Although Thursday's game will take place at Villa Park, it's worth looking ahead to Villa's final game of the group stage when the team travels to Bosnia and Herzegovina in what is the smallest stadium in the group by some distance. The Bijeli Brijeg Stadium, commonly referred to as simply HŠK Zrinjski Stadium, only holds a capacity of 9,000 and only has one stand with the other three sides facing out to woodland areas. Needless to say, the Zrinjski Stadium won't be able to create anything close to the intimidating atmosphere that Villa faced in Warsaw and will likely face in Alkmaar. Even so, Emery and co will hope to have the group already won at that point as the facilities there will likely be below par with a pitch that's tough to play on. As mentioned earlier, AZ Alkmaar already felt the sting of having to travel there.

That's a bridge to cross in a few weeks, though. Until then I fully expect Aston Villa to comfortably beat HSK Zrinjski Mostar with very little trouble this Thursday, especially if Emery goes with a strong first eleven.

Kick off time: 20:00

Location: Villa Park

Channel: TNT Sports 2

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