Brazilian duo lift gloom as City reclaim top spot
Denni 59; Leandro 85;
Valletta took full advantage of Birkirkara’s unexpected draw in yesterday’s opening match as they edged past a battling Qormi side to return to the top of the Premier League standings.
Yet, it was far from a vintage display from the champions who struggled to create scoring opportunities against a highly-organised Qormi side who worked tirelessly throughout the 90 minutes to try and close all avenues that led to their goal.
In the end, two well-worked goals by Brazilian forwards Denni and Leandro Da Silva gave Valletta a much-needed lift as they gained their first win in six matches and, more importantly, moved one point clear of title rivals Birkirkara and Hibernians on the 29-point mark.
No doubt, Valletta coach Mark Miller will be hoping that this win will prove a turning point for his team after their negative run of late had seen the Citizens throw away a significant lead at the top, in the process enabling Birkirkara and Hibernians to catch up.
Miller resisted the temptation to hand a full debut to new signing Joseph JoJo Ogunuppe as the Nigerian striker had to settle for a place on the bench.
Brazilian forward Leandro was preferred to compatriot Gabriel. Kurt Magro was handed a starting berth ahead of Ryan Fenech while goalkeeper Manuel Bartolo regained his place after Yenz Cini had defended the City goal during their 3-1 FA Trophy victory over Ħamrun Spartans last weekend.
Qormi coach Jesmond Zerafa, facing Valletta for first time since ending his two-year spell in charge of his hometown club, was forced to make do without winger Leighton Grech, who is recovering from a groin strain.
Grech was replaced by Luke Sciberras while goalkeeper Matthew Farrugia was back in goal after being rested in the 5-2 FA Trophy victory over Pembroke.
The Whites threatened as early as the first minute when Roderick Briffa burst free on the right before picking up Ian Zammit, confirmed in Valletta’s starting team after his encouraging showing against the Spartans, but the striker’s shot on the turn flew over.
Qormi’s response arrived on eight minutes when Matthew Gauci swept past his marker before hitting a low drive that was blocked in two attempts by Bartolo.
After that auspicious start, the tempo of the game dropped as both teams struggled to cope with the wet and windy conditions at the National Stadium.
Qormi remained dangerous on the break. On the half-hour, Ricardo failed to deal with a vertical ball into his area and in came Edison Bilbao Zarate who moved past Ian Azzopardi and fired a low drive that was neutralised by Bartolo.
Valletta finally made a chance on 36 minutes when Azzopardi picked out Zammit on the edge of the area and the City forward hit a dipping shot that was parried away by Farrugia.
The match remained a scrappy affair with midfielder William Barbosa becoming the first player to go in the book after a poor challenge on Bilbao Zarate.
The Citizens created their best opportunity on the stroke of half-time when Leandro sent a dangerous low cross across the face of goal but neither Edmond Agius nor Denni managed to connect with the ball and a promising chance was lost.
On the restart, Miller withdrew Magro and roped in striker Michael Mifsud. The Malta captain almost made an instant impact as, seconds into the second half, he released Leandro who fired an angled drive that was pushed away by Farrugia.
On 55 minutes, Mifsud beat the Qormi offside trap to control Barbosa’s throughball but the nippy striker took too much time to conclude and his low shot was stopped by Farrugia.
City finally forced a breakthrough a minute shy of the hour when Leandro sent a dipping cross into the path of Denni who adjusted his body to send an acrobatic shot bouncing past a hesitant Farrugia.
Almost a minute later, Mifsud could have added to Qormi’s woes but his rising shot just missed the target.
Denni’s goal seemed to have eased the Citizens’ nerves and on 65 minutes, Zammit almost added a second when his fierce volley just flashed past the upright.
Seventeen minutes from time, Denni was replaced by Gabriel as Miller sought to bolster his team’s midfield in a bid to administer their slim advantage.
Qormi had a good chance to pull level when Zarate managed to slip the ball into the path of Sciberras but his shot lacked the necessary power to test Bartolo.
Any hopes of a Qormi comeback were all but ended five minutes from time when, in a quick break, Leandro found Gabriel on the right and the latter quickly squared the ball back to his team-mate who had little difficulty despatching the ball past Farrugia.
That turned out to be Leandro’s last contribution as the Brazilian was replaced by debutant Ogunnuppe in the closing stages.
A minute from time, Mifsud came close to putting his name on the scoresheet when he controlled Zammit’s inviting ball but his fierce drive was fisted away by Farrugia.
M. Bartolo-6, R. Briffa-6, D. Falzon-6, Ricardo-6, W. Barbosa-6.5, E. Agius-5.5, I. Zammit-6.5, Leandro (87 J. Ogunnuppe), Denni-6 (73 Gabriel), I. Azzopardi-6.5, K. Magro-4.5 (46 M. Mifsud-6.5).
M. Farrugia-6.5, K. Thackray-6, J. Chetcuti-5, A. Bello-Osagie-6.5, L. Sciberras-5, M. Gauci-5.5, S. Siritto-5 (79 V. Pisani), E. Bilbao Zarate-6.5, J. Bondin-6, A. Cassar-6, S. Wellman-6.
Referee: Clayton Pisani.
Yellow cards: Barbosa; Sciberras; Zammit; Briffa; Bilbao Zarate.
BOV player of the match: Ian Zammit (Valletta).