Birkirkara edge past Blues to restore two-point lead
Mintoff 71 og;
Sliema Wanderers 0
Premier league leaders Birkirkara enjoyed a slice of good luck yesterday as an own goal by Sliema Wanderers winger John Mintoff gave them a precious 1-0 win that kept the Stripes’ title challenge firmly on track.
Sliema’s dour defence was never unduly troubled by Birkirkara yesterday but their goalkeeper Glenn Zammit conceded his first goal after five consecutive clean sheets after being undone by Mintoff’s unlucky touch as the latter tried to clear the ball following a Jhonnattann free-kick.
Just as Sliema’s erstwhile impressive season owes much to their defensive solidity and tactical discipline, Birkirkara’s surge towards a first Premier League title in three years is also built on a rock-like rearguard. This was in ample evidence yesterday.
Paul Zammit’s formation showed three changes from the hard fought 1-0 win over Tarxien Rainbows.
Skipper Gareth Sciberras was absent after failing to recover from a calf injury. He was replaced by Ryan Scicluna while Shola Shodiya Haruna and Zach Muscat were handed a first-team place after coming on as substitutes in the Rainbows game.
Rodrigo Pereira and Jean Pierre Mifsud Triganza had to settle for a place on the bench. The Birkirkara coach plumped for 3-5-2 with Haruna partnering Jhonnattann in attack and Edward Herrera and Joseph Zerafa the wing-backs.
Sliema mentor Alfonso Greco fielded the same starting XI for the third game in a row. As expected, the third-placed Blues, who began the game only four points behind Birkirkara, opted for 4-3-1-2, with Matias Muchardi on the left side of midfield, Mark Scerri on the right and Paltemio Barbetti withdrawn in the middle.
Shawn Bajada played in the hole behind the front pair of Ivan Woods and Ian Zammit.
The Wanderers stormed out of the blocks as, after 30 seconds, Zammit advanced towards the Birkirkara box and lashed a dangerous low drive from the right that finished wide of the far post.
Birkirkara goalkeeper Justin Haber was on the alert in the 11th minute, extending himself fully to collect Muchardi’s clever effort with the outside of his foot.
Sliema’s momentum was interrupted after 24 minutes when a fine interception by Zammit prevented Jhonnattann from turning Haruna’s cross over the line.
Three minutes later, Herrera switched position with Zerafa cavorting in acres of empty space left by Scerri on the flank. The Birkirkara flank defender burst clear on the left before cutting into the box to unleash a rising shot which was tipped over the post by Zammit.
From the ensuing corner, Jhonnattann’s delivery found Muscat who rose above friend and foe at the far post but his header hit the woodwork.
At the other end, on 36 minutes, Haber put in a vital challenge as Bajada threatened to break clear after collecting Woods’s crossfield ball.
A few moments later, Zammit was forced into his first substitution as Rowen Muscat suffered an injury. He was replaced by Mifsud Triganza.
Shy of the hour, Zerafa got behind the Sliema defence but, as he closed in on goal unimpeded, Stefano Bianciardi scythed down the Stripes defender.
Jhonnattann broke the boredom with a thunderbolt that flew over the bar.
Birkirkara’s inability to penetrate their opponents’ defence was summed up by a penalty shout turned down after 63 minutes when Nikola Vukanac appeared to fall under the challenge of Barbetti.
Birkirkara found themselves 1-0 up in bizarre circumstances after 71 minutes.
Jhonnattann’s free-kick, intended as a cross, appeared, to wrong-foot Zammit who just managed to keep it out but the ball came off the back-tracking Mintoff and rolled into the net despite the latter’s frantic attempt to clear.
Shell-shocked by the manner in which they conceded the goal, Sliema for the first time looked somewhat fragile at the back and moments later, Haruna’s looping shot was pawed away by Zammit.
Five minutes from time, Sliema suffered a severe setback when striker Zammit was given his marching orders for persistent protests after he had just been booked by referee Kevin Azzopardi.
In the dying minutes, Paul Fenech kept Birkirkara’s lead intact as he made a vital challenge to block Alex Muscat’s close-range shot.
J. Haber-6, Z. Muscat-6, N. Vukanac-6, A. Mendoza-6, J. Zerafa-7, R. Muscat (37 J. P. Mifsud Triganza-4), P. Fenech-6, R. Scicluna-6, Jhonnattann-5.5 (84 Y. Hernandez), S. Shodiya Haruna-6 (80 R. Pereira), E. Herrera-7.
G. Zammit-6, A. Muscat-5, P. Barbetti-7, M. Scerri-5.5, J. Mintoff-6, I. Zammit, C. Gatt Baldacchino-6, I. Woods-6.5, S. Bajada-6 (61 S. Ohawuchi-4), M. Muchardi-6.5 (80 L. Ruggiero), S. Bianciardi-6.
Referee: Kevin Azzopardi.
Yellow cards: Vukanac; Gatt Baldacchino; Bianciardi; Zerafa; Scerri; Zammit.
Red card: Ian Zammit (Sliema Wanderers) 85.
BOV player of the match: Jhonnattann (Birkirkara).
Tedesco Stadium: 6pm Floriana vs Melita; 8.15pm Ħamrun Spartans vs Balzan.