Consistency is a must for top-six hopefuls
The race for Championship Pool berths is gathering pace at a remarkable rate.
The first matches from the second round were played last weekend and as things stand it is only Valletta and Birkirkara, the joint leaders in the standings, and third-placed Hibernians that can feel somewhat confident of a top-six finish.
On Monday, fourth-placed Sliema Wanderers and close pursuers Mosta conceded defeats to Floriana and Hibernians respectively that left them with some work to do to stave off the challenges from the ever-improving duo of Tarxien Rain-bows and Balzan.
Qormi, Floriana and Ħamrun Spartans could also push themselves in the reckoning in the straight for home, thus making the fight for top positions the closest in many a year.
Match-day 12 of the cham-pionship’s first phase produced action and goals in most of the matches but it was the performances of Balzan and Tarxien that stood out most.
On Saturday, Balzan fell two goals behind inside the opening 20 minutes against Ħamrun but Ivan Zammit’s expertly rallied his troops for a 3-2 win with substitute Malcolm Licari scoring a last-gasp winner.
“I’m proud of my players as they kept battling till the end,” Zammit told The Times.
“Our tactical plan was not functioning well in those first 20 minutes but then we applied some changes and we took control of the match.
“Our first goal, scored by Elton, infused confidence in the team that we could turn the match around. But, surely, all our players deserve praise for the way they responded to adversity... they never stopped running and trying hard.”
Despite victory coming against another Championship Pool hopeful team, Zammit wants his players to focus on their next matches.
He has a clear vision on what his team must achieve to repeat last season’s feat of playing among the elite in the second phase.
“The past few weeks were very positive for our team. We’re on a seven-match unbeaten run, a streak that has only been matched by Valletta this season. But that means nothing if we’re unable to maintain this kind of consistency,” Zammit said.
“The table is showing four teams separated by a couple of points but I still expect Qormi and Floriana to enter this group. That’s why I’m urging the boys to show the same character of last season as the run-in will be very difficult.
“But this Balzan team have a lot of desire to succeed and that can be our trump card on the day of reckoning.”
Tarxien are the other team who have been showing great fighting qualities lately after a rather difficult start to the campaign.
Clive Mizzi’s appointment as new coach, following the exit of Danilo Doncic, has steadied the ship and on Sunday the Rainbows gave another indication of their intentions to vie for the top six places with a battling display in a 1-1 draw with champions Valletta.
“It was a difficult test for us as they wanted to win this match so badly after three successive drawn results,” Mizzi remarked.
“But Tarxien showed remark-able fighting spirit. We took the pitch without fear and the players worked hard for each other to secure a merited point, in my opinion. Hopefully, this result will inject more confidence in our players ahead of what is set to be a difficult second round.”
Mizzi agrees that the battle for top-six berths will involve more teams and reckons the next four matches could prove decisive on who makes the cut.
“It’s going to be tight and I expect more twists and turns in this particular race for Championship Pool places,” Mizzi said.
“Looking at how things have developed lately, it’s going to be important for us to stay consistent and do well in our next four matches... all against our direct rivals.
“That could give us a head-start before the final run-in.”
Scorers, red cards
Balzan FC: Elton 7 (2 pens); Pedrinho 5 (1 pen); Licari 2; Mendy, Deanov, Caruana, Pace.
Red cards: Conceicao (vs Ħamrun), Licari (vs Hibs), Pace (vs Sliema), Forace (vs Mosta).
Birkirkara: Mifsud Triganza 5, Jhonnattann 5 (1 pen); Shodiya 3 (2 pens); Muscat 2, Joselito 2, Vukanac 2, Sciberras 2, Camenzuli 2; Fenech.
Red cards: Scicluna (vs Balzan), Fenech (vs Ħamrun), Herrera (vs Qormi).
Floriana: Darmanin 7; Verma 3; Cilia 2, Wasiu 2; Alhinho, Brown, Jeffers.
Red cards: Brown (vs Rabat), K. Farrugia (vs Mosta), Alhinho (vs Hibernians).
Ħamrun Spartans: Grima 5 (3 pens); Vella 4; Calabretta 3; Scerri, Bozhov, Zerafa, Spiteri, Camilleri (pen), Yoshev.
Own goal: Gribbon (vs Melita).
Red cards: Fenech (vs Floriana), Cassar (vs Tarxien), Vitanov (vs Sliema).
Hibernians: Lima 6 (2 pens); Cohen 4; Dias 3; Pulis 2; Pisani, Soares, Levnaic, Nwoba, Farrugia, Ribeiro, Failla.
Red cards: Muscat (vs Balzan), Dias (vs Balzan), Pulis (vs Tarxien, vs Mosta).
Melita: Negrin 5; L. Micallef 2, Galea 2; Vukanic (pen), Sammut. Own goal: Pace (vs Balzan).
Red cards: Vukanic (vs Valletta), Sierra Camacho (vs Tarxien).
Mosta: Obiefule 8 (1 pen); Mitev 5; Aboulezz 2, Bogdanovic 2 (1 pen), Zongo 2 (1 pen); Bajada, Campagnoli, Apap.
Own goal: Bello-Osagie (vs Qormi).
Red cards: Grech (vs Sliema), Aboulezz (vs Floriana), Dimech (vs Balzan).
Qormi: Bello-Osagie 6 (1 pen); Pisani 4; Spiteri 3; Siritto 2, Thackray 2; Chetcuti.
Rabat Ajax: Astrauskas 2; Fuster, Smeir, Carapic, Borg.
Red cards: Borg (vs Floriana), Brincat (vs Sliema Wanderers).
Sliema Wanderers: Woods 7 (2 pens); Ruggiero 3, Ciantar 3; Muchardi 2, Faccini 2; El Ghaouti, Barbetti, A. Muscat, Timotic.
Red cards: Scerri (vs Floriana), Bonello (vs Floriana).
Tarxien Rainbows: Danilo 7; Bueno 5 (1 pen); Evaldo 3; An-drezinho 2; Tanti, Pulo, Bonnici.
Red cards: Danilo (vs Sliema), Evaldo (vs Birkirkara).
Valletta: Mifsud 11 (2 pens); Gabriel 5; Fenech 3; Briffa 2, Denni 2; Caruana, Ricardo, Borg, Barbosa.
Own goal: Tufegdzic (vs Melita).
Friday (Tedesco Stadium)
18.00 Rabat vs Melita
20.15 Birkirkara vs Balzan
Saturday (National Stadium)
14.00 Hibernians vs Qormi
16.00 Valletta vs Mosta
Sunday (Hibs Stadium)
14.00 Sliema vs Tarxien Rainbows
16.00 Ħamrun vs Floriana