Late goals steer high-flying Hibs past spirited Stripes
Farrugia 78; Scerri 87
Birkirkara's title hopes receded after their unexpected 2-1 reverse to Marsaxlokk the weekend before last. By contrast, Hibs brightened their prospects of becoming champions of Malta with a 5-0 roasting of Sliema Wanderers sending them six points clear at the top.
Hibs' exhilarating form and their perfect record over the Stripes this season hardly helped to lift optimism among the Birkirkara clan but for the best part of yesterday's encounter, the latter looked capable of ending their negative run.
They gave as much as they got and also fashioned a handful of scoring chances but Hibs showed their character by coming back strongly in the final stages to hit two goals that drew the sting out of their battling opponents.
Their hero yesterday was young striker Jean Paul Farrugia who broke Birkirkara's resistance 12 minutes from time only 13 minutes after replacing Adrian Pulis.
Terrence Scerri then ensured that Hibs restored their six-point lead at the top by scoring his side's second goal in the dying stages, much to the frustration of Birkirkara as well as title chasers Valletta who had hoped for a slip-up by the leaders.
Andrew Cohen was passed fit to start after a groin strain had raised doubts about his participation in yesterday's match.
The availability of Cohen enabled Hibs coach Mark Miller to field the same team that dismantled Sliema last week.
The suspension-related ab-sence of defender Ron Hartvig and midfielder Shaun Bajada prompted Birkirkara coach John Buttigieg to draft Mauro Di Lello and Jonathan Holland back into the first team. Captain Michael Galea was also back in Birkirkara's starting XI, taking the place of Bulgarian forward Kirill Dimitrov-Mihaylov.
Galea and Jean Pierre Mifsud Triganza were the two recognised strikers in the Birkirkara side as Buttigieg stuck with 4-4-2.
Hibs' tactical module was a kind of 4-1-2-3 with Cohen and Zeferino Soares Borges playing either side of target man Scerri.
The early exchanges offered little in the way of creative fare but on 13 minutes, Di Lello saved Birkirkara from a potentially dangerous situation with an acrobatic clearance to belt away Cohen's cross from the right.
At the other end, Adrian Pulis did likewise for Hibs when getting his body in the way of a shot by Mifsud Triganza.
As the first half wore on, Birkirkara brought a sense of urgency to their game. Joseph Zerafa, a dynamic figure on Birkirkara's left flank, had the best chance to fire his team in front but he skied his shot high and wide from just inside the box.
Two minutes before the half hour, Cohen tried to carve an opening with a trademark swerving run down the middle. The Malta midfielder profited from a short clearance by Ivalio Sokolov to run clear but his final effort sailed wide.
Eleven minutes from the end of the opening half, Hibs came agonisingly close to seizing the lead. Clayton Failla's cross from a corner soared past the flailing Omar Borg and landed in front of Pulis in the goalmouth but the Hibs defender's shot was cleared off the line by Cilia.
Moments later, Hibs forced another corner, this time from the left. Failla again delivered a teasing cross and Pulis headed firmly but his effort was off target.
The Paolites warmed to the task of attacking their opponents in the latter stages of the first half. Pulis, one of Hibs' most effective players, served Scerri who somehow freed himself of Di Lello's shackles but the grounder by the Malta forward was met with a routine save from Borg.
The best chance of the game fell to Birkirkara on the cusp of half-time, Paul Fenech played an intelligent pass through the backtracking Hibs defence and into the path of Mifsud Triganza who advanced into the box. The former Msida striker veered to his left before freeing George Mallia who was completely unmarked but the Birkirkara midfielder's central shot was fisted away by Mario Muscat.
The second half had only just started when Cohen created space for a shot inside the area but he miscued his attempt.
Another glorious chance went abegging when Pulis's pass to Scerri was diverted into the Birkirkara box and towards Galabov but the Bulgarian lost his composure and poked the ball wide.
A quick Birkirkara breakaway saw Fenech supply a telling pass to Mifsud Triganza but the latter's low strike lacked precision.
When Failla's set-piece cross from the right was met by the lanky Galabov, the level of expectancy among the Hibs fans rose but Borg dampened their optimism when saving the Bulgarian's header.
Buttigieg had earlier made his first substitution, Alan Tabone coming on for Thomas Paris, a move that entailed a positional switch as Cilia dropped to right-back.
Miller also effected his first change, replacing the hobbling Pulis with Farrugia and repositioning Failla at left-back.
With 12 minutes remaining, Hibs edged ahead. They were awarded a free-kick on the right after Zerafa brought down Cohen. Failla swung his cross towards the far post where substitute Farrugia towered above friend and foe to head the ball past Borg. The Birkirkara claimed that Borg had been pushed but referee Chris Lautier was unmoved.
Buoyed by their opener, Hibs now went for the kill. Scerri, who again found a tough opponent in Di Lello, managed to move clear of the Italian but his angled shot was pushed away by Borg.
Five minutes from time, Scerri sprung open Birkirkara's offside trap and roared towards goal but his scorcher brought a brave save from Borg.
As Birkirkara tired out, Scerri came more into the picture and his sudden improvement reaped instant rewards, the towering forward wrapping up Hibs' victory with a stinging shot from the edge of the box. Game over.
Only a fine save from Borg denied Hibs a third goal as the Birkirkara goalkeeper tipped Failla's free-kick over the crossbar.
M. Muscat-7, J. Caruana-6.5, E. Herrera-5, A. Pulis-7 ('65 J.P. Farrugia-6.5), C. Failla-6, C. Callejas-5, T. Scerri-6, J. Pearson-5.5, Z. Borges Dos Santos-5, R. Galabov-6.5, A. Cohen-5.5 ('90 B. Camilleri).
O. Borg-6.5, J. Zerafa-6.5, I. Sokolov-6, T. Paris-5 ('64 A. Tabone-6), M. Di Lello-7, G. Mallia-5, T. Cilia-7, J. Holland-5, J.P. Mifsud Triganza-5.5, M. Galea-5, P. Fenech-6 ('84 K. Dimitrov-Mihaylov).
Referee: Chris Lautier.
Yellow card: Zerafa.
BoV player of the match: Rumen Galabov (Hibs).