Late goals deflate luckless City
Cisovsky 76, 80
For more than 75 minutes, Valletta had played with such assurance and composure that predictions of an easy Champions League assignment for Slovakia's Artmedia Petrzalka looked way off the mark.
Indeed, Paul Zammit's gallant troops had not only battled valiantly but they created the better scoring chances with new recruit Jamie Pace having squandered a glorious chance in the opening minutes to put the Malta champions in the lead.
Caution had been the order of the day for Zammit who had charged his players with the onus of producing a good advert for themselves and for Maltese football in general and with only 15 minutes of the game left, optimism of a positive result by the Citizens was sky-high.
Home hopes were, however, brusquely dashed by the erstwhile off-colour Artmedia who hit two almost identical goals in the space of four minutes to all but assure themselves a place in the second qualifying round of UEFA's top competition.
The 2-0 defeat was a bitter pill for Zammit, the entire City clan as well as the neutrals and Maltese journalists who were united in their belief that the Maltese champions didn't deserve to leave the National Stadium empty-handed.
Nevertheless, Zammit, whose meticulous preparation for this match was there for everyone to see, can take a lot of positives from yesterday's outing, not least the fine form shown by skipper Gilbert Agius who was a thorn in the side of Artmedia's defence, Stefan Giglio, who was outstanding in midfield, and young guns Ian Zammit and Dyson Falzon.
Although Valletta can expect a tougher challenge from Artmedia when they visit Slovakia next week, a repeat of yesterday's performance would surely not harm their chances of finishing their Champions League adventure with their heads held high. But, Valletta players would also do well to keep their heads high in a literal sense when facing set-play situations for Artmedia's goals came from headers by Marian Cisovsky.
Zammit favoured a 4-3-2-1 formation with Agius deployed as a central striker and Zammit and Falzon detailed to push up from the wings. In an era when teams across Europe have more foreigners in their ranks than players from the club's country of origin, Valletta bucked that trend yesterday as they presented an all-Maltese line-up.
The game was only 90 seconds old when Valletta threatened to break the deadlock. Having been awarded a foul on Agius deep into Artmedia's half, the Citizens managed to prise open the opposing defence as Stefan Giglio's pass fell to the City captain who managed to cross into the box where the unmarked Pace ought to have scored as he rose unchallenged in the six-yard box but his header was saved by Lubos Kamenar.
Artmedia were scarcely dangerous in the opening exchanges but on 13 minutes, they went close to taking the lead. There seemed little danger for Valletta when Artmedia sent a low ball into the home team's box but Josef Mifsud's attempt at cutting out Zbynek Pospech's run proved futile as the striker raced past him only to fire his shot just wide.
The game remained generally devoid of scoring chances as the cautious Citizens succeeded in stifling Artmedia's endeavours to get the ball to their forward line.
David Camilleri and Giglio worked their socks off, chasing passes in the centre of midfield as Pace took up a more advanced position. Close to the 25th minute mark, Hogg did well to repel an effort by Pospech inside the box.
Eleven minutes from time, Hogg smothered away a dangerous effort from Pavol Durica and moments later, the City goalkeeper demonstrated his growing maturity when he kept his ground to block a chip by Pospech.
Urged on by their vociferous fans, Valletta stuck grimly to their task of frustrating Artmedia but refreshingly, Zammit's men made a bold effort to make an attacking threat.
After left-back Steve Bezzina hit a grounder that was saved by Kamenar, another fast City move, engineered by the evergreen Agius, had Artmedia in a state of disarray as the ball was switched in a trice to Zammit who evaded the keeper but rolled his shot onto the base of the far post. However, the assistant referee's raised flag signalled that the Valletta striker was offside .
The referee's half-time whistle was greeted with a deserved applause from the City faithful who had good reason to be pleased with their team's tenacious display in the preceding 45 minutes.
Artmedia enjoyed the lion's share of possession early in the second half but Valletta were not in the mood to lie down.
Just past the hour mark, Valletta carved out another fine chance when Giglio released Agius who traded passes with Zammit in the inside-right channel. The latter stormed into the box but his cross just eluded the sliding Falzon.
The danger was not over for Artmedia as the ball reached Giglio who was dispossessed as he tried to force his way into the box but the ball ricocheted off the Valletta midfielder and sailed towards goal but Kamenar saved.
It was all Valletta at this stage, an Agius screamer sailed wide.
Fourteen minutes from time, Artmedia scored an ill-deserved goal which, as is often the case when Maltese sides play in Europe, came from a set-piece. Jan Kozak's cross from a corner soared towards Cisovsky who headed past Hogg.
Hardly four minutes later, Artmedia doubled their lead with a carbon-copy goal, Cisovsky again profiting from Valletta's lax marking to direct a header past Hogg.
Artmedia's two-goal burst shattered Valletta's confidence but to their credit, the Whites did try to muster a reaction. Efforts from the distance from Zammit, substitute Cleaven Frendo and Giglio were off target.
A. Hogg, J. Grioli, J. Mifsud, L. Dimech, S. Bezzina, D. Camilleri ('66 E. Agius), S. Giglio, J. Pace ('85 C. Mattocks), G. Agius, I. Zammit, D. Falzon ('77 C. Frendo).
L. Kamenar, P. Durica ('79 B. Obzera), D. Dosoudil, O. Szabo, J. Piroska ('68 Cleber), G.A. Pedro, K. Salata, M. Cisovsky, B. Fodrek ('85 P. Mraz), Z. Pospech, J. Kozak.
Referee: Christoforos Zografos.
Yellow Cards: Zammit; Pospech; Dosoudil; Grioli; Durica.
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Second legs: July 22-23.