Early Sukaj strike foils Birkirkara
Birkirkara fell behind after just 80 seconds and never quite recovered.
Patrick Curmi had barely time to get acquainted with international football when Xheyahir Sukaj broke the deadlock. Yet this was no hard-luck story for Curmi or his players.
The Stripes had 88 minutes to turn the game around but there was no reprieve as they were unable to break down a stubborn visiting defence which restricted them to only a series of half chances.
Birkirkara’s new coach had argued that the trick was not to concede a goal at the Corradino Stadium. The Stripes’ game plan appeared to focus on being tight in defence and worrying about attack secondarily as they lined out in a 4-1-4-1 formation.
Rowen Muscat protected the back four, Joseph Zerafa and Trevor Cilia on the flanks and the Italian Jacopo Camilli a lone furrow up front. Gareth Sciberras, newly signed from Marsaxlokk, played alongside Paul Fenech.
Yet, the newly central defensive unit made of Andrei Agius, in his final match with the Stripes, and Marcis Savinovs looked disjointed from the start.
They were a metre or two away from Sukaj as the Albanian striker ghosted past the defence and got onto Amarildo Belisha’s through- ball to slot in as Birkirkara fell behind after just one minute and 20 seconds of play and never quite recovered.
The visitors had the better of things for a while after as Curmi’s side struggled to gel, with Savinovs in particular looking intimidated by the presence of Sukaj in the Birkirkara box.
Skipper Fenech was soon cutting an authoritive figure in the heart of the five-man midfield, winning some important interceptions as slowly Birkirkara tried to work their way into the game.
But on the otherhand left-winger Zerafa struggled to contain right-winger Olsi Gocaj while Camilli found Blazho Rajovic and Arsen Sukaj an immovable defensive barrier, so chances were at a premium.
At the other side, Savinovs was still being overworked by Sukaj. After 18 minutes, Jlir Nallbani’s ball was completely misread by the Latvian defender, which permitted the unattended striker to shoot on goal.
Birkirkara’s inability to penetrate their opponents’ defence was summoned up by a penalty shout turned down after 39 minutes when Trevor Cilia appeared to fall under the challenge of Smajlaj.
Leighton Grech’s introduction after the break saw Birkirkara adopt a more direct style of play as the nippy winger’s pace brought a new dimension to their attacking play. Soon after restart, he drove in a splendid cross weighted perfectly towards Camilli who tried to make use of his height to trouble the defence.
Yet, the urgency in Birkirkara’s play did not last long as Vllaznia came agonisingly close to a second goal when Gocaj failed to connect in front of a gaping goal on the hour mark.
Muscat gave way to Alan Tabone as Curmi searched for an answer from his bench after 63 minutes.
But it was Fenech who raised the spirits with a flashing shot which skidded wide of Miroslav Yujodinovic, the Vllaznia goalkeeper.
There was danger again in the 76th minute when Tabone swung in a cross from the right and Camilli was fractionally late, throwing back his head for his closest effort on goal.
David da Silva was soon introduced at the Italian’s expense, to the grateful applause from the Birkirkara crowd. He joined Tabone in attack and immediately added more fluency to the Stripes play as the Brazilian took up a front position and made himself available to the team’s midfielders to exchange quick one-two passes, allowing Fenech and Sciberras to be more involved in the team’s attacking play.
It was this ploy that won a number of free-kicks close to the edge of the box.
Just before the final whistle, Sciberras connected to a ball supplied by Da Silva only to see it cleared off by Smajlay and despite a furious goalmouth scramble, the Stripes could not put the ball into the net.
J. Mora, A. Buhagiar, A. Agius, M. Savinovs, A. Decesare, R. Muscat (63 A. Tabone), P. Fenech, G. Sciberras, T. Cilia, J. Camilli (80 D. Da Silva), J. Zerafa (46 L. Grech).
M. Yujodinovic, D. Smajlaj, B. Rajovic, A. Sykaj, B. Popovic, J. Nallbani, A. Belisha, O. Gocaj, A. Alechenu, A. Vajushi (80 N. Shtubina), X. Sukaj (90 V. Nimani).
Referee: Ignasi Villamayor Rozados (Andorra).
Yellow card: Rajovic.
First leg results...
First qualifying round
IF Fuglafjordur (F. Islands) vs KR Reykjavik (Iceland) - 1-3
Daugava Daugavpils (Latvia) vs Tromso (Norway) - 0-5
Elfsborg (Sweden) vs CS Fola Esch (Luxembourg) - 4-0
The New Saints (Wales) vs Cliftonville (N. Ireland) - 1-1
Honka Espoo (Finland) vs JK Nomme Kalju (Estonia) - 0-0
Fulham (England) vs NSI Runavik (F. Islands) - 3-0
IBV Vestmannaeyjar (Iceland) vs Saint Patrick’s (Ireland) - 1-0
UN Kaerjeng 97 (Luxembourg) vs BK Hacken (Sweden) - 1-1
Aalesund FK (Norway) vs Neath FC (Wales) - 4-1
FK Renova (Macedonia) vs Glentoran FC (N. Ireland) - 2-1
FC Koper (Slovenia) vs Shakhter Karagandy (Kazakhstan) - 1-1
FK Banga (Lithuania) vs Qarabag FK (Azerbaijan) - 0-4
UE Santa Coloma (Andorra) vs Paksi SE (Hungary) - 0-1
JK Trans Narva (Estonia) vs FK Rabotnicki (Macedonia) - 1-4
FK Rad (Serbia) vs SP Tre Penne (San Marino) - 6-0
FK Buducnost (Montenegro) vs KS Flaumurtari (Albania) - 1-3
Ferencvaros (Hungary) vs Ulisses FC (Armenia) - 3-0
Jagiellonia Bialystok (Poland) vs Irtysh Pavlodar (Kazakhstan) - 1-0
Olimpik-Suvalan PFK (Azerbaijan) vs FC Minsk (Belarus) - 1-1
FC Dinamo Tbilisi (Georgia) vs Milsami Orhei (Moldova) - 2-0
NK Varazdin (Croatia) vs FC Lusitans (Andorra) - 5-1
FC Banants (Armenia) vs Metalurgi Rustavi (Georgia) - 0-1
Birkirkara (Malta) vs KS Vllaznia (Albania) - 0-1
NK Siroki Brijeg (Bosnia) vs Olimpija Ljubljana (Slovenia) - 0-0
FC Spartak Trnava (Slovakia) vs FK Zeta (Montenegro) - 3-0
Second legs: July 7.
Second qualifying round
Floriana (Malta) vs AEK Larnaca (Cyprus)
Birkirkara/KS Vllaznia vs FC Thun (Switzerland)
First legs: July 14;
Second legs: July 21.