Hibs repel Reds’ late rally
Ħamrun Spartans 1
Cohen 8; Ribeiro 20;
Hibernians turned a modicum of pressure on champions and early pace-setters Valletta yesterday with a hard-fought 2-1 victory over Ħamrun Spartans.
The Paolites, now three points behind the leaders in second place, looked to have settled the issue by the end of the first half after opening a two-goal lead while holding the initiative for long stretches.
The Spartans toiled hard to establish a stronghold in that first half and found it hard to expose any cracks in their opponents’ defensive armour for most of the 45 minutes.
Yet, a tactical adjustment by Reds coach Stefan Sultana midway through the second half, regenerated the team who took the game back to Hibernians. Michael Woods’s side endured a nervy finale but they hung on to their lead.
Marcelo Dias was ruled out by suspension for Hibernians but Woods did not limit himself to just one change from their victory over Floriana as Udo Nwoko was preferred to Brandon Muscat.
Ħamrun powerhouse Lyubomir Vitanov was out, suspended, while Gianluca Calabretta was among the substitutes as Sultana restored Nikolai Bozhov and Daniel Zerafa to the starting formation.
With playmaker Andrew Cohen and Clayton Failla fully fit and in fine form, everyone was aware that the game was bound to revolve around these two Hibs protagonists but few could anticipate their moment of impact coming so early.
Ħamrun goalkeeper Andrea Cassar needed to be alert as early as the seventh minute to block an effort by Failla who lashed a powerful drive after exchanging passes with Ribeiro.
From the corner, taken by Jackson Lima, Rodolfo Soares and Roderick Fenech rose over friend and foe for a head-to-head challenge, only to neutralise each other as the ball fell into the path of Cohen who buried home with a curling shot.
For a team already beaten 8-2 this season, that was not the most auspicious of starts and when their former striker Ribeiro stretched Hibs’ lead 12 minutes later with a beautifully-struck volley, Sultana was left wishing the interval would not take long to come for him to try and reorganise his ranks.
In the build-up to Hibs’ second goal, Cohen picked the unmarked Ribeiro who hit a fierce shot into the corner of the net.
It looked very much game over for Ħamrun but the match then descended into a battle of attrition.
The power of Nwoko was a feature in the first half and another run through the heart of Ħamrun’s defence should have yielded a third Hibs goal, only for Cohen to hit badly from a good position.
Terence Vella was fighting a lone battle against Soares and Zoran Levnaic but at least Angel Yoshev offered the Spartans some hope with a rising free-kick after 41 minutes.
The Spartans were still struggling to cope with the sheer quality of Cohen after the break. A cross from the winger flew towards Jackson Lima who shot firmly but Cassar leapt into the air to push the ball over the post after 49 minutes.
Three minutes later, Cohen swung in another excellent ball towards Adrian Pulis who headed wide. After these couple of opportunities for Hibs, the game went into a lull again.
Ħamrun were starting to come back into the game at that point without ever offering anything resembling pace or penetration.
Fully aware that the Spartans could turn things around, Sultana tweaked his formation and introduced Calabretta and Luke Grech for Ryan Spiteri and David Camilleri respectively.
Yoshev was advanced on the left flank with Vella as their main attacker and Calabretta detailed to run the right wing.
And Ħamrun finally enjoyed a spell of pressure with Yoshev, in particular, looking menacing and giving Ryan Camilleri a torrid time. The Bulgarian’s influence dictated the tempo of Ħamrun’s attacks with Hibs struggling to cope with his pace.
But only complacency could allow Ħamrun back into the game and when a Yoshev effort squirmed past Mario Muscat and into the net, hopes of an interesting finale rose significantly.
Ħamrun were also threatening on the right flank now thanks to the direct running of Calabretta. Indeed, the Reds should have brought the score level with 20 minutes to go, only for Vella to hit badly from a good position.
Massimo Grima then mustered two open chances in quick succession.
His free-kick on 72 minutes was touched over the bar by Muscat and soon after Grima swept past his marker, before unleashing a thunderbolt from the distance that flew just over the bar.
Tempers flared on the Hibs bench as coach Woods was ordered to leave the dug-out following a heated argument with fourth official Marco Borg.
Ħamrun’s bold comeback just fell short, however. And in stoppage time, Fenech denied Hibs a third goal as he blocked Jean Paul Farrugia’s effort after the substitute had been sent clear by Jackson Lima.
A. Cassar-6, M. Grima-7, R. Spiteri-5 (52 G. Calabretta-6), T. Vella-5, N. Bozhov-5, A. Ivanov-5, R. Fenech-6.5, A. Yoshev-8, A. Vergilov-5, D. Camilleri-5 (59 L. Grech-6), D. Zerafa-5 (81 C. Cassar).
M. Muscat-5, R. Camilleri-5, R. Soares-6, A. Cohen-7.5, B. Kristensen-5.5, A. Pulis-6, C. Failla-6.5, Z. Levnaic-6.5, U. Nwoko-5.5 (47 A. Azzopardi-5), A. Ribeiro-6 (66 J.P. Farrugia-4), J. Lima-5.
Referee: Fyodor Zammit.
Yellow cards: Fenech; Kristensen; Farrugia.
BOV player of the match: Andrew Cohen (Hibs).