Stripes overpower City
Jhonnattann 14; R. Muscat 71;
Back-to-back victories over Hibs and Mosta went some way towards restoring Birkirkara’s status as title candidates but their encounter with champions Valletta was always going to be considered the litmus test for the Stripes.
Despite starting the match in third place, two points behind Hibs and one adrift of Birkirkara, Valletta were still seen as possessing the attributes to reverse the tide, moreso as they had their backs to the wall after their slip-up to Tarxien Rainbows in midweek.
This defeat raised the prospect of a Valletta backlash but this was not forthcoming as Birkirkara lent further credence to suggestions that they are coming to boil at the right time with an outstanding showing.
On paper, Valletta have the best squad but they were made to look ordinary by Birkirkara who outshone their much-vaunted opponents in every aspect, not least tactically.
Indeed, Paul Zammit outwitted Mark Miller, his opposite number at Valletta, as his 3-5-2 strategy not only stifled Valletta’s attacking prowess but also brought the best out of the Birkirkara players whose ability to make a super quick transition from defence to attack was central to their success.
With Birkirkara storming out of the blocks to take an early lead, Miller tried to rectify matters by making a positional change in a bid to add steel to his midfield and impetus to his misfiring attack.
But the switch failed to bring the desired dividends as the Stripes maintained their tactical composure.
They were deserving winners not only because of their tactical cohesion but also because they were the team that cherished victory most with their players winning the majority of the 50-50 balls and bossing the midfield where Paul Fenech and Gareth Sciberras were indefatigable figures.
What of Valletta? For all the hype surrounding their so-called stellar squad, they again failed to justify their billing. Shaky in defence throughout the game, they were overpowered in midfield and showed little creativity up front with most of their players clearly off form and dispirited.
Their lacklustre display incensed their fans who jeered their team at the final whistle as this defeat leaves Valletta’s title bid in tatters. The Citizens are now third, four points behind Birkir-kara and two adrift of Hibs.
As kick-off approached, the two sets of fans raised the volume.
Given the depressing lack of enthusiasm in most of the Premier League games this season, the sight and sound of cheering fans was welcoming but the attendance for this top-of-the-table clash still left a lot to be desired.
Miller responded to the 3-2 defeat to Tarxien with a spate of changes in his line-up. Luke Dimech and Jonathan Caruana returned to strengthen Valletta’s defence while Brazilian midfielder William Barbosa duly reclaimed his place in the starting formation after serving a one-match ban.
Gabriel was preferred to Demba Toure with Daniel Bogdanovic, Edmond Agius and Dyson Falzon also consigned to the substitutes’ bench.
The ease with which Tarxien bypassed the Valletta midfield was probably the main reason behind Miller’s decision to deploy Jason Lee Vandelannoite alongside Barbosa with Gabriel in front of the central duo. Their 3-4-1-2 formation had Michael Mifsud as the attacking fulcrum alongside Denni.
Birkirkara coach Paul Zammit limited himself to one alteration from the 7-1 mauling of Mosta as Rowen Muscat, who capped a lively cameo appearance with a brilliant goal in midweek, was awarded a berth in the initial XI at the expense of Ryan Scicluna.
Mindful of the speed of the Valletta forwards, especially on the wings, Zammit fielding two fast wing-backs in Edward Herrera and Joseph Zerafa in a 3-5-2 formation. The two attacking roles were handed to Jhonnattann and Jean Pierre Mifsud Triganza.
Valletta survived an almighty scare after just five minutes. Latching on to a pass from Paul Fenech, Mifsud Triganza nipped behind the City defence and surged into the box but Ian Azzopardi’s last-ditch challenge was enough to throw the Birkirkara striker off balance with the result that his final shot was too tame to trouble Manuel Bartolo in Valletta’s goal.
Shouts of ‘penalty’ emanated from the Birkirkara side but referee Chris Lautier deemed that Azzopardi’s intervention was legitimate.
The Citizens were reprieved but not for long. The makeshift scoreboard showed 14 minutes of the game gone when Birkirkara broke the stalemate.
Once again, the brisk movement of their forwards tormented the City defenders as Fenech’s intelligent pass reached the unmarked Mifsud Triganza in the box and the latter squared to Jhonnattann who poked the ball into the net with Caruana keeping the Brazilian on side.
A goal down after 14 minutes, Valletta struggled for fluency. Gabriel fashioned their first chance with a diagonal grounder that ended just wide. Roderick Briffa then teed up Denni but the Brazilian skewed his shot high and wide.
Around the 27th minute mark, Zammit was forced into his first substitution as Brazilian Rodrigo Pereira was unable to continue after picking up an injury. He was replaced by Zach Muscat.
Valletta should have equalised on 28 minutes when, in a penalty-box melee, the ball rolled to Mifsud but his close-range effort was quelled by Justin Haber, the Birkirkara goalkeeper.
Fenech then did well to cut in from the left but his shot was off target.
This was the cue for Birkirkara to issue a reminder of their counter-attacking qualities as Jhonnattann again got behind the Valletta defenders but his attempt was repelled by the diving Bartolo.
The loose ball dropped at the feet of Herrera who unleashed a dipping shot from the inside-right channel but Bartolo pulled off an excellent save, tipping the ball wide.
The game continued to ebb and flow. Vandelannoite headed wide from Barbosa’s free-kick.
Nine minutes from half-time, Haber almost gifted Valletta a goal as his short clearance sailed towards Mifsud who controlled the ball but his weak grounder was stopped by the Birkirkara goalkeeper.
It was left to Gilbert Agius, Valletta’s assistant coach, to deliver instructions from the technical area as Miller, who is recovering from a severe cold, remained in the dug-out. Vandelannoite reverted to a defensive role with Caruana taking up a midfield role.
Three minutes from half-time, Birkirkara threatened again when Herrera burst clear on the right before hitting a low cross into the six-yard box but Barbosa was alert to flick the ball away from Jhonnattann.
The second half was less than two minutes old when Valletta carved out an inviting opening.
Ryan Fenech exchanged passes with Gabriel before cutting into the box but he elected to pass instead of shooting and Paul Fenech was well-placed to clear the danger.
A misplaced pass by Dimech had Valletta in a spot of bother as Sciberras was first to the ball before passing to Jhonnattann who burst his way through but his shot took a deflection off Azzo-pardi.
Two minutes past the hour, Zammit introduced Shola Shodiya Haruna for Mifsud Triganza.
Birkirkara seemed content to soak up Valletta’s pressure and operate with counter-attacks, knowing that in Jhonnattann and Haruna they had two players who could hurt the opposing defence with their agility and speed.
With 21 minutes remaining, Miller sent on Bogdanovic for Mifsud but it was Birkirkara who doubled their lead.
Valletta were again caught on the backfoot as Birkirkara broke forward with speed.
Herrera sprinted clear from the right and his low cross-shot caused a goalmouth melee before Rowen Muscat tucked the ball home at the far post.
Valletta might have reduced the deficit but Bogdanovic headed over from Denni’s cross.
Birkirkara easily withheld Valletta’s desperate efforts in the closing stages to secure a potentially crucial win in the title race.
M. Bartolo-6, J. Caruana-4, J.L. Vandelannoite-6, R. Fenech-5.5 (84 D. Falzon), Gabriel-5, I. Azzopardi-4, R. Briffa-5, L. Dimech-5, Denni-5, W. Barbosa-5 (75 D. Toure), M. Mifsud-5 (69 D. Bogdanovic-4).
J. Haber-6, E. Herrera-7, N. Vukanac-6.5, A. Mendoza-7.5, R. Pereira (27 Z. Muscat-6.5), R. Muscat-6.5, G. Sciberras-7, P. Fenech-8, Jhonnattann-7 (78 R. Scicluna), J.P. Mifsud Triganza-6.5 (62 S.S. Haruna-6), J. Zerafa-6.5.
Referee: Chris Lautier.
Yellow Cards: Mifsud Triganza; Dimech.
BOV Player of the match: Jhonnattann (Birkirkara).
Tedesco Stadium: 6pm Rabat vs Melita; 8.15pm Balzan vs Qormi.