Ħamrun Spartans 0
Sliema Wanderers 2
Muchardi 38, 82;

So superior were Sliema Wanderers in this one-sided encounter with the embattled Ħamrun Spartans that the only surprise was that it took them until eight minutes from time to rubberstamp their victory with a second goal.

A day after Mosta became the fifth team to secure a place in the Championship Pool, the onus was on Sliema to settle the remaining top-six issue and avert a potentially nerve-wracking clash with Balzan next weekend.

And Alfonso Greco’s men were up for the challenge as they tore into the lethargic Spartans from the off.

Initially, Ħamrun did well to keep their opponents at bay despite being outplayed but from the moment Matias Muchardi fired the Blues ahead late in the first half, there were no doubts where the three points were heading to.

Muchardi took the plaudits after crowning a lively performance with a second goal eight minutes from the end but equally impressive for Sliema was Italian Paltemio Barbetti who gave a masterclass in the holding midfield role.

There were encouraging signs all over the pitch for Greco, not least the improving form shown by midfielder Shaun Bajada, Alex Muscat’s versatility and the harrying shift put in by Mark Scerri.

Certainly not the same can be said of the relegation-haunted Ħamrun who slumped to their 11th defeat in the last 12 matches.

The Spartans were never in the reckoning as they were outrun and outsmarted by their opponents in every department, especially in defence and midfield where their lack of pace was there for all to see.

New signings Giacomo Favero and Cesar Catalan made their first appearance for the Spartans but both had a quiet debut. Catalan was listed as a substitute in the original teamsheet handed out to reporters but, in a last-minute change, the Spaniard was drafted into the starting line-up instead of Glenn Azzopardi after the latter picked up an injury during the warm-up.

A notable absentee for Ħamrun was French striker Loic Lumbilla who has been granted permission by the club to travel to his home country for family reasons.

Spartans coach Stefan Sultana kept faith with Terence Vella as his team’s main striker with Emiliano Lattes and Ryan Spiteri under instructions to offer support from the wings.

Lumbilla’s absence coupled with Vella’s struggles to pose a threat as a lone strikerin the Spartans’ heavy defeats to Hibs and Valletta made it imperative for the wide players and Favero, Ħamrun’s advanced midfielder, to retrieve and distribute the ball well to boost their team’s attacking prowess.

For the Wanderers, Italian duo Stefano Bianciardi and Luigi Ruggiero were missing through suspension. Josef Mifsud deputised for Bianciardi in central defence while, in Ruggiero’s absence, Muchardi retained his place in Sliema’s three-man attack.

Veering infield from his left station, Muscat raced through before hitting a low shot that just missed the target after three minutes.

Sliema fashioned their next opportunity on 16 minutes when Zammit’s set-piece cross from the left was met by Josef Mifsud who headed high and wide.

The Wanderers enjoyed the initiative in the first half-hour but their forwards initially struggled to make an impact as the Ħamrun defenders stood firm.

Having offered little in the way of attacking football, the Spartans only had a Massimo Grima free-kick, which ended high, to show for their efforts.

On the half-hour, Sultana was forced to make his first change as captain Roderick Fenech’s participation was curtailed by a knee injury. He was replaced by Luke Grech.

To add to the Spartans’ woes, Sliema broke the stalemate seven minutes from half-time. Muscat orchestrated the move as the Blues captain darted into the box from the left before cutting the ball back for Muchardi who hammered home.

Sliema stayed in ascendancy, pinning their opponents in their half for long spells.

The sight of an unmarked Zammit shaping up the shoot from inside the box had some Sliema fans shouting ‘goal’ but the on-loan forward’s grounder drew a smart save from Anthony Curmi, the Spartans goalkeeper who was preferred to Andrea Cassar yesterday.

At the start of the second half, Sultana introduced Ayrton Micallef for Catalan.

The Wanderers continued where they left off in the first half after the break but, in a rare foray, Ħamrun made a chance when Micallef’s swerving cross-shot from outside the penalty area cannoned off the crossbar.

Sliema quickly re-asserted their superiority with Scerri and Barbetti holding sway in midfield and Muchardi flitting into dangerous positions up front.

Curmi, the Spartans goalkeeper, kept his team in the game with two acrobatic saves to keep out curling efforts from Bajada, the first from a left-wing free-kick and the second direct from a corner.

Waves of blue shirts continued to swarm forward, pummelling the Spartans rearguard in search of a second goal. Sliema did have the ball in the net on 74 minutes when Zammit headed home from the rebound after Curmi had repelled Ivan Woods’s screamer but the ‘goal’ was annulled for offside.

With 13 minutes remaining, Bajada dragged in another menacing cross from a right-wing corner but the ball just eluded Muscat at the far post.

It looked a matter of when not if Sliema would increase their lead and the inevitable second goal came eight minutes from time.

Zammit slipped an excellent through-ball to Muchardi who advanced before flicking the ball past Curmi.

The Spartans goalkeeper denied Sliema a third goal when touching away a strong drive by Zammit.

Ħamrun Spartans
A. Curmi-6.5, R. Fenech-5 (30 L. Grech-5), E. Lattes-4 A. Borg-5, R. Spiteri-4, T. Vella-5, B. Guga-5, G. Favero-5 (79 G. Debattista), M. Grima-5, D. Camilleri-5.5, C. Catalan-4 (46 A. Micallef-6).

Sliema Wanderers
G. Zammit-6, A. Muscat-7, L. Martinelli-6.5, P. Barbetti-8, M. Scerri-6.5, I. Zammit-6.5, C. Gatt Baldacchino-6.5, I. Woods-6 (80 A. Faccini), S. Bajada-6.5, J. Mifsud-6, M. Muchardi-8.

Referee: Trustin Farrugia Cann.

Yellow cards: Mifsud; Woods; Gatt Baldacchino; Borg; Scerri.

BOV player of the match: Mathias Muchardi (Sliema Wanderers).

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