Gritty Tarxien deny City
Tarxien Rainbows 1
After three successive draws at the Tedesco Stadium, the prospect of resuming their title defence on the natural grass of the Hibs Stadium will have heightened Valletta’s hopes of ending their winless run.
Valletta’s wobbles of late had been largely blamed on the state of the pitch of the Ħamrun ground but such theory was disavowed yesterday as the champions’ problems persisted following another 1-1 draw against the resilient Tarxien.
City coach Mark Miller dispelled talk of crisis in the lead-up to yesterday’s match but his side’s failure to see off weaker opposition, on paper at least, will surely force the City clan into a soul-searching exercise.
In all of their three previous outings, Valletta had surrendered the lead but yesterday it was they who were forced to chase the game as Tarxien exposed their frailties when defending set-pieces.
When Michael Mifsud, on at the start of the second half, hit the target to wipe out Evaldo’s opener, everyone at Corradino expected the champions to take the game by the scruff of the neck.
Valletta did dominate for long stretches but lacked the cutting edge to make their supremacy count as the Tarxien players hurtled into challenges and threw their bodies in the way of a barrage of shots to secure a valuable point in their bid to make the top six.
Although the Whites will probably feel that they deserved more than a point, Tarxien were worth their point on the back of their gutsy showing.
Their dogged resistance was typified by the resolute Evaldo at the back, the enterprising Orosco Anonam in midfield and the non-stop front duo of Andrezinho and Daniel Mariano Bueno.
Brazilian midfielder Gabriel was left out of Valletta’s line-up as Miller awarded the fourth foreigner’s slot to striker Leandro. The other change in City’s team saw Kurt Magro take the place of Edmond Agius. Magro started at right-back as Miller restored captain Roderick Briffa to central midfield in a back-to-basics 4-4-2 formation.
The two attacking roles were assigned to Leandro and Denni.
Mifsud was among the substitutes for Valletta after missing the draw with Sliema.
Tarxien Rainbows coach Clive Mizzi elected to ring the changes after his team’s reverse to Qormi.
Goalkeeper David Cassar, Justin Grioli, Karl Pulo, Mark Tanti, Luiz Romulo De Castro and Steven Bonnici were named in Tarxien’s initial formation as Nicky Vella, Manuel Caruana and Roderick Bajada, the latter two having been ranked doubtful, had to settle for a place on the bench.
Brazilian forward Danilo and David Fenech were sidelined with injuries.
The returning De Castro stationed himself alongside Anonam in central midfielder as Mizzi opted for 4-2-3-1.
The game was six minutes old when Evaldo’s header from Andrezinho’s corner was deflected wide by the City defenders.
Valletta failed to heed the alarm signals, conceding from a similar set-piece after only 10 minutes.
Andrezinho swung in another teasing cross, this time from a left-wing corner, and the unmarked Evaldo guided a downward header past the diving Manuel Bartolo.
Tarxien’s relentless pressing in the embryonic stages stifled the champions. Referee Mario Apap had to deal with a string of abrasive, at times over-the-top, challenges in a cagey opening.
On 17 minutes, Bartolo was forced to dash out of his goal to close down Pulo after the Tarxien winger’s run had again eluded the attentions of the City defenders.
At the other end, Ricardo did well to head away Andrezinho’s menacing cross as the champions struggled to cope with the intelligent movement of Tarxien’s livewire.
Tarxien protested for a penalty when Bueno’s attempt appeared to come off Jonathan Caruana’s elbow but Apap was unmoved.
Midway into the first half, Valletta forced a flurry of corners but failed to glean any tangible reward as Tarxien stood firm.
From another corner, on 27 minutes, Denni came close to scoring but his inswinging cross-cum-shot was pawed away by Cassar. The loose ball fell to William Barbosa but his attempt was blocked by Evaldo.
Despite enjoying an edge in terms of possession, Valletta failed to fashion any clearcut scoring chances.
That may have changed when Leandro finally managed to create space in the box before pulling the ball back for Denni who rifled wide.
After another prolonged City raid, the ball fell to Barbosa but the Brazilian’s scrambled drive was easily saved by Cassar.
The Tarxien goalkeeper thwarted Valletta when saving Denni’s effort with his feet after the latter had been sent clear by Ryan Fenech.
The Rainbows were quick to switch from defence to attack with Bueno hitting a long-range grounder that ended just wide of the far post.
Miller and Briffa were the first to descend on the pitch after half-time but it was the sight of Mifsud warming up with a series of sprints that lifted the spirits of the Valletta fans.
The Malta captain came on for Shaun Bajada as the Whites reverted to 4-3-3.
Two minutes into the second half, Fenech sent in a fine cross after exchanging passes with Denni from a corner but Caruana’s backheader dropped inches wide of the far post.
The heavens opened at the start of the second half.
Barbosa’s ferocious free-kick was high but it was Tarxien who almost doubled their lead when Pulo burst forward on the left before crossing for Andrezinho who in turn sent the ball towards Bueno. The latter spun to get a slight touch to the ball but his flick ended wide.
Reprieved, Valletta mounted a devastating attack as Fenech returned the ball to the sprinting Mifsud who advanced on the left before putting in a low cross that reached Leandro at the far post but the Brazilian’s drive rattled the post.
Thirteen minutes into the second half, Valletta equalised. Racing on to a long ball from the back, Denni appeared to touch the ball before letting it roll to Mifsud who drew Cassar out of position and slotted home from an angled position.
The Tarxien players claimed that Mifsud had been offside but after consulting his assistant, Apap allowed the goal to stand.
The end-to-end action persisted but it was apparent that Mifsud’s introduction added some much-needed width to Valletta’s attack.
Evaldo failed to locate the target as his free-kick from the distance was high.
The hobbling Ricardo was replaced by Gabriel, a change that forced Miller to move Ian Azzopardi into defence as Fenech dropped to left-back.
With 19 minutes remaining, Bartolo saved Andrezinho’s free-kick.
Having caused havoc in Tarxien’s box with another surging incursion, Mifsud served Denni but Anonam slid in to dispossess the Brazilian.
Cassar, the Tarxien ’keeper, fisted away Barbosa’s stinging free-kick as Valletta piled up the pressure.
Miller played his last card as he summoned Ian Zammit from the bench to replace Leandro.
In the dying stages, Zammit’s speculative shot was diverted into the path of Barbosa but the latter’s volley flew over the bar.
Briffa then headed wide from Zammit’s cross, to the evident dismay of the City fans who have seen their team’s seemingly impregnable lead at the top disintegrate after this sequence of draws with the champions now sharing top spot with Birkirkara.
D. Cassar-6.5, Evaldo-7.5, J. Grioli-6, Andrezinho-8, K. Pulo-6 (90 A. Agius), R. Sammut-6, M. Tanti-6 (64 R. Bajada-5.5), D.M. Bueno-7.5, L.R. De Castro-6 (78 M. Caruana), O. Anonam-7.5, S. Bonnici-6.5.
M. Bartolo-6, Ricardo-6 (69 Gabriel-5.5), K. Magro-6, W. Barbosa-6, R. Fenech-5.5, S. Bajada-5.5 (46 M. Mifsud-7), R. Briffa-6, J. Caruana-6, Leandro-5.5 (84 I. Zammit), I. Azzopardi-7, Denni-6.5.
Referee: Mario Apap.
Yellow cards: Andrezinho; De Castro; Grioli; Caruana; Evaldo; Azzopardi.
BOV player of the match: Andrezinho.
Victor Tedesco Stadium: 6 p.m. Mosta vs Hibernians; 8.15 p.m. Floriana vs Sliema Wanderers.