Ten-man City edge Stripes to go three points clear
The Valletta fans could not have felt more alive upon hearing referee Alan Mario Sant blow the full-time whistle as the Malta champions’ recent resurgence continued after a hard-fought victory over Birkirkara put their title defence back on track.
Valletta, reduced to ten men for almost an hour following the first-half dismissal of Denni, showed great fight in overcoming the challenge of nearest rivals Birkirkara to grab a priceless victory that lifted them three points clear at the top of the standings.
The pressure was on the champions before yesterday’s top-of-the-table clash but Valletta responded to the task with a diligent display.
On the back of last week’s clear-cut victory over Hibernians, yesterday’s triumph yielded further evidence that they are slowly but surely, rediscovering the kind of form which led them to back-to-back championships in the last two years.
Ian Zammit’s goal on the stroke of half-time was a shot in the arm for the Citizens who administered their advantage after the interval to hang on to a morale-boosting victory.
Birkirkara, on their part, were passive, poor and lacking inspiration despite the high stakes on the table as they rarely troubled Valletta goalkeeper Yenz Cini who put up a solid display.
Heartened by his team’s fluid showing in their 4-1 defeat of Hibernians last week, Valletta coach Mark Miller stuck with a 4-2-3-1 formation that was spearheaded by Zammit. The two changes in the champions’ starting XI were enforced on the Valletta mentor as Ryan Fenech and Demba Toure were serving suspension.
Dyson Falzon was charged with the onus of patrolling the right flank in Valletta’s advanced trio alongside Denni and Gabriel who took up Toure’s role. In central midfield, Jason Vadelannoite flanked William Barbosa.
With Birkirkara missing no fewer than five players due to injuries and suspension, Birkirkara mentor Paul Zammit was forced to re-shuffle his starting line-up that thrashed Tarxien 5-0.
Injuries deprived the Birkirkara coach of three first-choice players in Rodrigo Pereira and Nikola Vukanac, while Ryan Camenzuli missed out due to suspension. Former Valletta striker Jhonnattann, who was back from suspension, Zach Muscat and Joseph Zerafa deputised for the absent trio.
Yet, Zammit still had a surprise up his sleeve as he thrust Yosimar Hernandez in the thick of things at the expense of Jean Pierre Mifsud Triganza. The Stripes lined up in a favoured 4-3-1-2 formation with Shodiya Shola Haruana and Jhonnattann leading their attack.
Kick-off was preceded by a poignant moment as Valletta captain Roderick Briffa and assistant coach Gilbert Agius made their way to the Millennium Stand to place a bouquet of flowers in memory of a Valletta supporter, Twanny Mallia, who passed away last week.
Unsurprisingly, given the enforced changes in their line-up, Birkirkara found the going tough in the opening exchanges.
On 11 minutes, Hernandez sent Briffa crashing to the ground in Valletta’s first venture towards the Birkirkara penalty area. The free-kick was awarded in perfect Barbosa territory. However, the Brazilian’s sweetly-struck effort came off the crossbar with Reuben Gauci rooted to his spot.
So, coach Zammit’s ire was somehow justified after 24 minutes, when the Birkirkara rearguard conceded another free-kick just outside their box in a bid to tame Gabriel. This time, Barbosa’ ferocious shot sailed over.
At the other end, Jhonnattann was picked in the box by Herrera. The Brazilian’s first attempt was kept out by Yenz Cini but as the nippy striker tried to transfer the ball on his favourite foot to fire in the rebound, Luke Dimech recovered in time to block his second attempt.
After 37 minutes, Denni had a shout for a penalty turned down for a tug by Zach Muscat with the Brazilian booked for simulation.
Three minutes later, Valletta were dealt an unexpected blow when the Brazilian, perhaps still nervous over the previous refereeing decision was shown a straight red card for retaliation when he kicked Muscat while lying on the floor.
Although Valletta knew the odds were stacked against them, football has a habit of throwing up the unexpected as the Lilywhites seized the lead in their next foray forward, three minutes later.
The Stripes were having trouble coping with Gabriel’s intelligent movement on the right. Danger loomed when the Brazilian sidestepped his marker before dispatching an excellent ball that drew central defender Muscat out of position for Zammit to head past Gauci.
The two teams were unchanged after half-time but Birkirkara took a while to get going after Zammit’s opener.
Birkirkara tried to impose themselves, forcing a series of flag-kicks which however failed to yield anything tangible.
Miller responded by bringing on Michael Mifsud for Zammit in a bid to offer a constant threat on the counter as Valletta switched to a 4-4-1 module.
In the 65th minute, Cini distinguished himself with a flying save to push Paul Fenech’s rising shot around the post as Zammit’s troops were now oozing signs of life.
The introduction of a fresh forward in Mifsud Triganza, who took over from Hernandez on 75 minutes, was inevitable as Zammit switched to 4-2-4 but that still demanded that the Stripes established better lines of communication with their forward line.
Miller replied by introducing Kurt Magro for Falzon. And although it was a conservative step, Valletta refused to settle for the one-nil and looked the likelier side to score again.
In the dying minutes, Barbosa’s free-kick finished just over the bar.
A few moments later, substitute JoJo Ogunuppe pounced on a defensive mix-up in the Birkirkara defence to out-jump Zach Muscat but he was thwarted by the onrushing Gauci as Mark Miller’s side ended the game in attacking mode.
Y. Cini-6, J. Caruana-5.5, J. Vandelannoite-7, I. Azzopardi-7, R. Briffa-6, L. Dimech-5.5, Denni, Gabriel-8 (89 J.J. Ogunuppe) , W. Barbosa-7.5, I. Zammit-6.5 (52 M. Mifsud-5), D. Falzon-6 (86 K. Magro).
R. Gauci-5.5, R. Scicluna-5.5, Z. Muscat-5.5, A. Mendoza-7, Y. Hernandez-5 (75 J.P. Mifsud Triganza), R. Muscat-6.5, P. Fenech-6, E. Herrera-5, S. Shodiya Haruna-4.5, Jhonnattann-4.5, J. Zerafa-5.
Referee: Alan Mario Sant.
Yellow cards: Denni; Scicluna; Fenech; Barbosa.
Red card: Denni (V) 40.
BOV player of the match: Gabriel (Valletta).