Early goal enough for Qormi
Rabat Ajax 0
Rabat Ajax began life back in the top flight with a defeat as Stephen Azzopardi’s Qormi taught them a painful lesson in finishing in the unforgiving nature of Maltese Premier League football.
On their part, critics have been too quick to write off Qormi after the loss of Jorginho and Joseph Farrugia from last season’s team as the Yellows sent out a clear statement of intent.
Silvio Vella’s game plan appeared to focus on being tight in defence and worrying about pushing forward secondarily as the Ajax lined out in a 4-1-4-1 formation with the former Valletta midfielder Heiner Backhaus deployed as an effective defensive shield in front of the back four.
Backhaus, known for his ruggedness in the challenge and in the air, was unable to effectively pull up the strings in midfield, often outpaced by a trio of advanced midfielders – Leighton Grech, Joseph Chetcuti and Matthew Bartolo who operated behind Abubakar Bello-Osagie in a 4-2-3-1 formation.
With nine of the mainstays of last season and only two new signings drafted in the starting formation, as expected Qormi overwhelmed a lethargic Rabat side.
The Ajax goalkeeper Sean Mintoff got his hands to Kris Thackray’s first-time effort from the edge of the area but could only help it into the path of Chetcuti who shot on the side-netting after 17 minutes.
But having failed to heed the earlier warning, Rabat fell behind two minutes later. Bartolo slipped a through-pass to Chetcuti, who left himself almost no margin of error in getting the ball over the goalkeeper.
On the half hour mark, Backhaus’s corner soared into the six-yard box but found no takers.
But the Ajax were undoubtedly on the back foot again as half-time approached but Bartolo was just too quick for the ball as he’d run past it, before he flashed his shot wide.
Azzopardi’s side had the opportunity to double their lead in the 51st minute when Grech cut in from the right-hand side to fire a rasping shot wide, before Mintoff pushed away a fierce Bello-Osagie effort that was heading for the top corner.
Rabat gradually shook off their apprehension and started to pose more of a threat, with the swift counter-attacks by Adam Smeir.
On the hour mark, the nippy striker picked up the ball in midfield, embarked on a dazzling run on the right flank that took him past a posse of players before he hit a low shot past Matthew Farrugia that ended agonisingly wide.
In the 79th minute, Stephen Wellman – who made the selection just in time after being cleared from the UEFA’s Control and Disciplinary body in Geneva – dipped a free-kick beyond the Ajax’s defensive wall but Mintoff punched away.
At this point, Vella threw caution to the wind and played the trumpet card Justin Felice as Qormi were leaving pace to exploit as the striker brushed his marker away from possession only to shoot off target six minutes from time.
The powerful Felice was causing problems for Qormi’s defence and rose at the far post to meet Dylan Falzon’s cross with a simple far-post header with Farrugia tipping his effort over the bar four minutes later.
In the dying minutes, Farrugia bravely kept out a Smeir’s effort as he got a finger tip to a rasping volley to touch the ball onto the bar.
S. Mintoff-6, G. Gesualdi-5 (55 C. Muscat), C. Schembri-5, I. Carapic-6, H. Backhaus-5 (62 J. Caruana), N. Astrauskas-4.5, A. Smeir-6.5, M. Fuster-5, D. Falzon-6. R. Micallef-5 ( 79 J. Felice), Y. Cauchi-5.
M. Farrugia-7, K. Thackray-6, R. Sammut-6, M. Bartolo-6.5. J. Chetcuti-7 (84 C.Farrugia), A. Bello-Osagie-6.5, L. Sciberras-6, M. Gauci-6, G. Buttigieg-6 (70 S. Wellman), J. Bondin-5, L. Grech-6.5 (79 A. Cassar).
Referee: Paul Caruana.
Yellow cards: Grech, Gauci, Carapic.
BOV player of the match: Joseph Chetcuti (Qormi).