Balzan’s top-six roadmap derailed by Rabat draw
Elton 36 pen;
Rabat Ajax 1
Armaro Negrin 10;
Balzan’s hopes of mounting a late surge for Championship Pool football this season suffered a massive blow after they were held to a draw by bottom-placed Rabat Ajax, yesterday.
This was a very poor showing by Balzan who sorely felt the absence of injured playmaker Pedrinho as Ivan Zammit’s men looked short in ideas upfront despite the debut of Ryan Darmanin and the team struggled to break down a resilient Rabat defence.
Balzan badly wanted to win this match to stay in the hunt for a top-six berth but found themselves with a mountain to climb after falling behind on 10 minutes when Jose Luis Armaro Negrin sped through to hand Rabat the lead.
The Reds tried to force an immediate reaction but they only succeeded in drawing level just past the half hour courtesy of a dubious penalty.
At this stage, those present at the stadium expected Balzan to shift to cruise mode and turn the match in their favour.
Rabat, however, refused to lie down, and, inspired by the outstanding Ivan Carapic at the heart of defence, they frustrated their opponents with some stubborn resistance and also looked dangerous on the counter-breaks launched by pacey Spanish forwards Jose Luis Armaro Negrin and man-of-the-match Diego Carrillo Pendas.
In the end, the stalemate prevailed and that made Balzan’s task to make the top six even more difficult.
In fact, they are currently four points adrift of sixth-placed Sliema Wanderers and with three difficult assignments coming up – vs Hibs, Valletta and the Wanderers.
Darmanin was thrown straight into action by Zammit as Pedrinho was ruled out with a strained muscle. Firas Aboulezz, who joined Balzan from Mosta on Friday, was on the bench but Jonathan Francica was forced to miss out with an ankle injury.
Rabat coach Silvio Vella was forced to make do without defender Patrick Borg while midfielder Manuel Fuster passed a late fitness test and started in midfield. Sean Mintoff was given the nod to start in goal as Jonathan Azzopardi had to be content with a role as a substitute.
As expected, Balzan made the early running but it was Rabat who struck with their first real attempt at goal.
The clock marked 10 minutes when Diego Carillo Pendas slid a perfect ball towards Armaro Negrin who beat the offside trap before slotting the ball past Balzan goalkeeper Daniel Martinez.
The goal stunned Balzan. Suddenly, they grew nervous with Stefan Giglio and Aaron Agius quickly going into the referee’s book for a couple of abrasive tackles.
Things almost became more difficult for Balzan as on 21 minutes Armaro Negrin forced his way down the right wing before hitting a dangerous cross-shot that was half-parried by Martinez and Fuster fired wide the rebound.
Balzan responded on 23 minutes when Renato Conceicao’s cross was cleared in time by Joseph Caruana with the ball finishing into the path of Jamie Pace whose first-timed volley flew just over.
Zammit was clearly unhappy with his team at this juncture and on the half hour he withdrew Agius and roped in Jacob Borg with Matthew Mendy taking a central defensive role and Giglio deployed in a more advanced midfield position.
The move reaped dividends for Balzan who grabbed an equaliser on 36 minutes albeit in controversial circumstances.
Elton released Conceicao inside the box and the Brazilian fell to the ground after he was dispossessed by Rabat goalkeeper Sean Mintoff. The action looked regular but the referee surprised everyone and pointed to the spot... a harsh decision indeed.
Elton stepped up and hit a low shot past Mintoff to make it one-all.
Six minutes from the break, Balzan almost struck again when Pace sent a teasing cross towards Darmanin whose header finished just over.
At the other end, Carrillo Pendas picked Fuster on the edge of the Balzan area but his thumping drive flashed wide.
The match remained evenly balanced after the restart.
Rabat came close on 51 minutes when Fuster’s centre was intercepted by Martinez with the ball falling kindly to Carrillo Pendas whose fierce drive was blocked by the Balzan keeper. From the loose ball the Rabat striker was denied by a goal-line clearance from the well-positioned Mendy.
Just past the hour, Caruana showed deft footwork to move past his marker before picking Darmanin inside the area but the former Floriana forward miscued his shot.
Balzan were becoming edgy but 18 minutes from time they carved out a good chance to take the lead.
Elton embarked on a surging run that took him past three Rabat defenders before serving Darmanin who beat his marker and let loose a rasping grounder that came off the upright.
Zammit was determined to infuse more energy in his team’s build-up play when he withdrew the tiring Giglio and Christian Caruana and introduced Bjorn Bondin and Malcolm Licari 11 minutes from time.
But, Carrillo Pendas almost won it for Rabat very late in the match when he stepped up to take a free-kick from a tight angle. His inswinger was pushed away in style by Martinez.
Balzan’s hopes were handed another blow in stoppage time when Yessous Camilleri was shown a straight red card after a clash with Carrillo Pendas.
D. Martinez-5.5, S. Giglio-6 (79 B. Bondin), M. Mendy-6, Y. Camilleri, A. Agius-5 (30 J. Borg-6), D. Grima-7, J. Pace-6, R. Conceicao-6.5, C. Caruana-5 (79 M. Licari), R. Darmanin-6.5, Elton-6.5.
S. Mintoff-6.5, I. Carapic-7.5, J. Caruana-6.5, J. Felice-6.5, J.L. Armaro Negrin-6.5, M. Fuster-6 (86 Y. Cauchi), D. Falzon-6, C. Brincat-6.5 (89 G. Gesualdi), D. Carrillo Pendas-7.5, D. Azzopardi-6.5, C. Gauci-6.5.
Referee: Fyodor Zammit.
Yellow cards: Giglio, Agius, Mendy, Mintoff, Conceicao, Carapic, Bondin.
Red card: Camilleri (B) 88.
BOV Player of the match: Diego Carrillo Pendas (Rabat Ajax).