Freiburg coach Christian Streich said his players were eager to, "reward themselves for the efforts of the past two years," when last season's seventh-placed Bundesliga finishers tackle NK Domzale in their UEFA Europa League third qualifying round first leg on Thursday (kick-off 21:05CEST).
Die Breisgauer enjoyed a stirring 2016/17 campaign in Germany's top-flight following their promotion as Bundesliga 2 champions, but face a stern test of their European credentials against the Slovenian Cup holders.
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Having lost the likes of Vincenzo Grifo to Borussia Mönchengladbach and Maximilian Philipp, now at Borussia Dortmund, Freiburg moved to strengthen in several departments over the summer, with Poland Under-21 international midfielder Bartosz Kapustka and defender Philipp Lienhart both arriving on-loan, from Leicester City and Real Madrid respectively.
"Bartosz did not play regularly in Leicester for a year, so we must have patience [with him]," Streich explained. "On the other hand, Philipp has been with the team a bit longer and is in good condition. He is tactically good and very alert," the tactician added.
Freiburg earned impressive friendly victories against Turkish team Konyaspor (2-0) and Dutch giants Feyenoord (1-0) over recent weeks, yet preparations for Thursday’s qualifier in Baden-Württemberg have been hampered slightly by injuries.
"The performances in the friendly games were positive, however, it wasn’t great that Caglar SöyüncüOnur Bulut and Lukas Kübler were injured,” the Freiburg coach explained. “[Defender] Manuel Gulde was not on the pitch [in either game, so] we have to wait and see.”"
Domzale don’t boast a formidable record against German opposition, the PrvaLiga outfit previously winning just once in 13 games against Bundesliga teams. Despite that, Thursday's hosts are aware that, having successfully overcome two qualifying ties to reach this stage, the Slovenians pose a significant threat to Freiburg's hopes of returning to the Europa League group stage for the first time since 2013/14. "I have seen two of their games and they strike me as an aggressive, tactically ambitious side who have already started their domestic league," Streich said.
"If you have come through two rounds, you have quality," striker Nils Petersen – who scored ten Bundesliga goals last term, added. “Domzale have a few players from the Slovenia national team in their ranks and last year they beat West Ham United 2-1, [before losing 3-0 away at the same stage of the Europe League]." Freiburg assistant coach Patrick Baier agreed, saying "They are mentally strong; we are coming up against a very disciplined team."
For the victors, a place in August's play-off round awaits, while beyond that, entering the tournament's group stage and joining Hertha Berlin and Cologne, will be Freiburg’s ultimate goal. The immediate task arrives on Thursday and in order to advance, Streich knows his players will need to obtain a good result ahead of the return at the Stadion Stožice in Ljubljana a week later.
"The guys are in a physically good condition and it is important that they play a solid preliminary round," the Freiburg coach insisted. “[My players] want to reward themselves for the effort of the past two years, and that's how the mind-set should be," the 52-year-old concluded.