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Valletta seek breather as 32 teams eye cup progress

Valletta midfielder William Barbosa (left) tries to pull clear of Ħamrun’s Gianluca Calabretta during their first-round league match. Photo: Darrin Zammit Lupi

Valletta midfielder William Barbosa (left) tries to pull clear of Ħamrun’s Gianluca Calabretta during their first-round league match. Photo: Darrin Zammit Lupi

Premier League clubs will be bidding to advance to the last 16 of this season’s U*Bet FA Trophy but four will surely stumble at the first hurdle as this weekend’s third round programme features four direct encounters between top-flight teams.

Given their recent travails in the championship, Valletta will be looking to gain some breathing space when they take on Ħamrun Spartans in the pick of the last 32 matches.

Success in this season’s FA Trophy represents a top objective for Valletta, moreso in light of their failure to do justice to their favourite tag in the past two seasons when they missed out on a league and cup double.

After going down 1-0 to bitter rivals Floriana in the 2011 FA Trophy final, Valletta were surprisingly beaten 4-3 by Qormi in a thrilling semi-final last season.

Having failed to win in their last five league matches, the embattled Citizens are desperate for a psychological tonic in the shape of victory but they are also aware that early elimination from the Trophy would deepen their crisis.

Valletta are inevitably regarded as favourites to see off a Ħamrun Spartans side reeling from four straight defeats in the league.

In their last meeting with Valletta, the Spartans were on the receiving end of an 8-2 drubbing but that humiliation is likely to spur Stefan Sultana’s team to seek revenge over the Whites in the Trophy.

Two intriguing third-round ties will be played at the Hibs Stadium tomorrow afternoon. Birkirkara face the in-form Tarxien Rainbows in the first match and holders Hibernians square up to Mosta in the second.

Birkirkara are leading the Premier League table by one point from Valletta but in their last outing, the Stripes were pegged back by Balzan who came from behind to salvage a point in a 2-2 draw.

Before the FA Trophy third round draw was made late last month, the Birkirkara fans probably took their team’s passage to the last 16 for granted but that is no longer the case after they were drawn against Tarxien. The same goes for the Rainbows who were surely hoping to avoid the big guns at such an early stage of the competition.

Tarxien lost 4-1 to Birkirkara in their first-round league match but the Blues have improved beyond recognition since then, turning in spirited performances to take a point off Valletta before inflicting a 2-1 loss on Sliema Wanderers.

Furthermore, Tarxien will be keen to atone for their embarrassing third-round exit from the FA Trophy last season after crashing to a 3-0 defeat to Division One side Pietà Hotspurs.

Birkirkara didn’t fare much better as they were knocked out by Ħamrun Spartans in the fourth round.

The Stripes are looking to complete the registration of a Spanish striker ahead of tomorrow’s FA Trophy clash.

The other stand-out tie this weekend is the confrontation between Hibs and Mosta. Hibs captured their ninth FA Trophy last May after a straightforward 3-1 win over Qormi. The Paolites face a tough task to make it to the next round as Mosta have this season established themselves as one of the leading teams in the Premier League.

The Blues are in buoyant mood after handing Valletta their first league defeat last weekend. By contrast, Hibs were below-par as they suffered an unexpected 1-0 defeat to Qormi.

Last season, Mosta lost 3-1 to Valletta at the quarter-final stage.

The other all-Premier League match is between 19-time winners Floriana and Melita, who have won the Trophy once in their history.

Three weeks ago, Floriana drew 2-2 with Melita in the league but they won their next two games at the expense of Sliema and Ħamrun.

Floriana will harbour high hopes of reaching the fourth round while Melita, who drew 0-0 with fellow league strugglers Rabat Ajax last weekend, will be looking to pull off an upset.

The other four top-flight clubs encounter opposition from the lower leagues as Balzan meet Division One side Naxxar Lions today, Qormi, last season’s beaten finalists, and Sliema Wanderers meet Division Two teams Pembroke and Żebbuġ Rangers respectively tomorrow, and Rabat face Pietà Hotspurs, of Division One, on Sunday.

Apart from the 12 Premier League teams and eight from Division One, this weekend’s third-round fixtures also feature seven sides from Division Two, two from Division Three and three from Gozo.

PROGRAMME

Today (Centenary Stadium 18.00 Marsaskala vs Sta Venera; 20.00 Lija vs Għargħur. (Tedesco Stadium 18.00 Gudja vs Senglea; 20.15 Naxxar vs Balzan.

Tomorrow (Centenary Stadium 14.00 Msida vs St Andrews; 16.00 Qormi vs Pembroke. (Hibs Stadium) 14.00 Birkirkara vs Tarxien; 16.00 Hibs vs Mosta. (Tedesco Stadium) 14.00 Sliema vs Żebbuġ; 16.15 Melita vs Floriana.

Sunday (Centenary Stadium) 14.00 Gżira vs SK Victoria W.; 16.00 Żurrieq vs Mqabba. (National Stadium) 14.00 Pietà vs Rabat; 16.00 Ħamrun vs Valletta. (Sirens Stadium) 14.00 St Patrick vs Sannat; 16.15 Żejtun vs Nadur.

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