New champions meet old in intriguing match
"You are only as good as your last match" is an adage frequently used in football talk.
It serves to highlight the competitive nature of the 'beautiful game', providing a constant reminder to teams of their fundamental duty to give their best to win every game, irrespective of previous achievements.
Sliema Wanderers are the top team in Malta this season after securing the Premier League title. The Blues have been celebrating their title success with daily activities since last Sunday when they were officially crowned as the new champions of Malta.
With the Premier League trek now done and dusted, local attention turns to the semi-finals of the FA Trophy which will be played this evening at the National Stadium.
Success in the league was Sliema's no. 1 objective but now that they have reached the semi-finals of the Trophy, the champions cannot afford to rest on their laurels. Failure to do well in the KO competition will cast a shadow over their title celebrations. Sliema are well aware of this for their Trophy victory in season 1999-2000 tempered Birkirkara's festivities.
Birkirkara, Hibernians and Floriana, the other teams involved in today's semi-finals, are also determined to lift the Trophy to round off the season on a top note.
Floriana, the underdogs, face Birkirkara in the first semi-final at 4.30 p.m. Hibernians then lock horns with the Wanderers in the second semi-final, kicking off at 6.30 p.m.
A do-or-die encounter between the new and the deposed champions is always bound to capture interest. A must-win scenario hangs over Hibs as the Paolites must lift the FA Trophy to secure a UEFA Cup berth.
The draw was harsh on Hibs as it pitted them against the strongest team but coach Robert Gatt is hoping that the prospect of beating the top side in Malta will spur his players to greater efforts.
"It is a difficult draw but we know that to win the competition, we have to beat the best," Gatt told The Sunday Times.
"This has been our chief target for quite some time now and I believe a semi-final against a tough team like Sliema can prove to be a blessing in disguise because it can bring the best out of my players."
Hibernians' track record against Sliema this season - three victories and only one defeat - ought to give Gatt further reason to be upbeat about his team's chances but past encounters are no guarantee of future success, he says.
"Previous results count for nothing," Gatt remarked. "The best team on the day takes the honours."
Hibernians' failure to defend their crown has been blamed on the underachievement of their top players but these seem to have come good in the latter stages of the league.
Gatt concurs with the general view that his team has produced its best football in the last few months.
"We were hard hit with injuries this season," Gatt said. "The acquisition of Edmund Lufi and Cesar Paiber in January and the progress of our young players are the main reasons for the team rediscovering its sparkle.
"There is more competition for places now, the training has been good and I think that the team has recovered from the psychological blow of losing the league title," Gatt said.
For today's semi-final, Gatt can bank on all of his experienced players. Youngsters Ryan Mintoff and Terence Scerri are the only ones unavailable because of injuries.
Winning the Trophy would help to ease Hibs' disappointment at relinquishing their league crown and could well hold the key to Gatt's future with the club.
Gatt, whose contract with the Paolites is due to run out this month, is willing to extend his stay. "I am ready to continue as Hibs coach," he said.
Having accepted Sliema's offer to stay on for another season, Edward Aquilina now wants to steer the champions to a double success.
"We all know through experience that success in the Trophy ensures a great finish to the season. We are happy to have won the championship but failure to lift the cup will be a massive disappointment," the Sliema coach said.
Aquilina is also urging his boys to exact revenge for their defeats to Hibernians this season. "This season, we have found it tough to have the better of Hibernians as results show. It's high time we set the record straight," Aquilina said.
Nenad Veselji, facing surgery to cure a knee problem, is ruled out of today's semi-final. Joe Brincat and Kevin Sammut are still not 100 per cent fit. Nigerian goalkeeper Murphy Akanji is back in the frame but Aquilina is likely to keep faith with Jason Cordina.
Birkirkara coach urges total concentration
Birkirkara may rightly be regarded as favourites to move into the final of the Trophy after the draw pitched them against Floriana in the semi-finals but their coach Stephen Azzopardi is wary of the Greens' threat.
On the other hand, Ziya Yildiz, the Floriana mentor, acknowledges that Birkirkara are better-equipped to reach the final but he warned that games are decided on the pitch not on paper.
Azzopardi believes that Floriana will be putting all their energies into the trophy now that they have secured their Premier League status.
"It is evident that Floriana will be given everything in their capacity to cut a good figure," Azzopardi said.
"Our approach for this game will be the same as if we were playing Sliema or any of the other big teams. There will be no half-measures in our preparation. I hope that the players are absolutely focused on the task at hand," Azzopardi maintained.
The Birkirkara coach was also willing to play down suggestions that his team must retain the Trophy to make up for their failure to top the league.
"Winning the league was not our main objective," Azzopardi insisted.
"Our priority this season has been to lay solid foundations for future success. That is not to say that we don't want to win because in building for the future, we have also done our best to challenge for the honours at stake.
"Now we are in the semi-finals and we will give our best to retain this honour."
Left-back Lino Galea is still doubtful for Birkirkara but the other players are all available. Skipper Antoine Zahra has resumed training with the team after a lengthy lay-off but is not expected to be in the squad today.
Azzopardi believes that Birkirkara are being tipped for success in the KO not because they won it last year but because they emerged as the biggest challengers to Sliema's title bid.
"It is because we battled Sliema all the way for the league title that people are speaking of Birkirkara as one of the main favourites to land the trophy," Azzopardi said.
Unlike Birkirkara, Floriana are not burdened by the weight of expectations as their chances of lifting the cup have been written off the moment they made the last four.
Yildiz knows that there is a gulf in resources between his team and Birkirkara but he is relishing the prospect of causing an upset.
"All the pressure has been alleviated by our ensuring Premier League survival," Yildiz said. "We know that we will be playing one of the strongest teams on the islands but we are not afraid.
"Football can be full of surprises. Our presence among the semi-finalists is already a success in itself but we will try to go one step further."
Floriana's recent league victories over Marsa and Mosta have lifted their confidence and Yildiz is hoping that now that the feel-good factor has been restored, his boys can take their positive form into the trophy.
"The most important thing is that our young players have gained the confidence to express themselves. Only a great performance can see us through to the final at the expense of Birkirkara.
"It's been a very difficult season for us with all the selection problems we had but we now have the opportunity to end the year on a high."
Trophy Semi-Finals - today
Floriana vs Birkirkara 4.30 pm (National Stadium)
Sliema Wanderers vs Hibernians 6.30 pm (National Stadium)
Final - Thursday, May 22 at the National Stadium, kick-off 7.30 pm