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Dominant Marsaxlokk made title quest look easy

Marsaxlokk captain Carlo Mamo (left) lifts the BOV Premier League trophy to the delight of his team-mates and numerous fans. Photo: Darrin Zammit Lupi.

Marsaxlokk captain Carlo Mamo (left) lifts the BOV Premier League trophy to the delight of his team-mates and numerous fans. Photo: Darrin Zammit Lupi.

Statistics don't lie, says the old football adage. Marsaxlokk are the best team in Maltese football and they have attained their new, lofty status with some style.

Producing the most expansive football witnessed this season, Brian Talbot's outfit finished with 47 points, the best total achieved by any team in recent Premier League history.

Their indubitable attacking prowess yielded a staggering 74 goals but the flair of the likes of Daniel Bogdanovic, the Premier League's leading scorer with 31 nettings, and Andrè Schembri was underpinned by a rock-solid rearguard that conceded only 28 goals in 28 games, the best defensive record in the top flight this season.

Malta international Luke Dimech, signed in the summer after a long spell in English football, established himself as a colossus in Marsaxlokk's defence.

In the middle of the park, Talbot could rely on a blend of power and individual panache with the likes of Jamie Pace and Gareth Sciberras supplying the graft while Kevin Sammut and Cleaven Frendo used their guile and speed to rip defences apart.

Talbot deserves all the praise coming his way for moulding a collection of talented players into a well-drilled, high-scoring unit. The depth of the Marsaxlokk squad this season is another key factor for their success as the team's leading lights knew that a run of bad form would have cost them their place in the team.

In this regard, Talbot has shown that ruthless streak that defines successful managers. The English mentor used his three foreign players sparingly but the likes of Haruna Doda and Udo Nwoko, plucked from Hibs in exchange for Andre Rocha Da Silva in January, didn't let the team down whenever they were called upon.

Marsaxlokk's supremacy this season has been such that for months on end, the destination of the title was widely regarded a foregone conclusion. This scenario was down to Marsaxlokk's remarkable consistency in stringing up a 21-match unbeaten run before their march was temporarily slowed down by Sliema Wanderers in the first round of the Championship Pool.

Some have likened Marsaxlokk's unrelenting quest for Premier League glory to a cruise but it was not easy-going all the way. True, most of the matches involving Marsaxlokk were lop-sided affairs but there were a few others when the champions drew on their resilience to keep their title bid on track.

These were the key matches in Marsaxlokk's league success:

October 15, 2006
Marsaxlokk vs Hibs 2-1

Marsaxlokk and Hibs had kicked off their Premier League trek with defeats to Birkirkara and Floriana respectively but they atoned for that opening upset with a five-match winning streak.

The first meeting between Marsaxlokk and Hibs on week seven of the season thus became a clash between the early pace-setters of the Premier League.

A sharing of the spoils seemed on the cards as, with only three minutes of the game left, Marsaxlokk and Hibs were locked on 1-1. Daniel Bogdanovic fired Marsaxlokk ahead after five minutes but Andrew Cohen scored from the penalty spot to level matters for Hibs eight minutes from the end of the first half.

Marsaxlokk refused to settle for a draw and three minutes from time, Haruna Doda, who had just replaced Andrè Schembri, scored the winner with a header from a Cleaven Frendo corner. Victory meant that Marsa-xlokk took sole leadership in the league, two points ahead of Msida St Joseph and three clear of Hibs.

October 20, 2006
Marsaxlokk vs Sliema W. 3-1

With the experienced Sliema desperate for a win after a shaky start to the season, this match was perceived as a tricky test for Marsaxlokk.

Forecasts were met as Marsaxlokk found the going tough against their rivals but, in addition to the attacking verve they had shown in their previous matches, Talbot's men also proved their ability to eke out positive results in difficult circumstances.

After Ivan Woods converted a 50th minute penalty to wipe out Schembri's first-half opener, Marsaxlokk knocked the wind out of Sliema's sails when Bogdanovic struck against the run of play with only 19 minutes left. In time added on, Doda scored after coming on as a substitute to ensure a seventh straight victory for Marsaxlokk.

December 2, 2006
Marsaxlokk vs Birkirkara 2-2

In a game of fluctuating fortunes, Marsaxlokk played the last nine minutes with nine men after late red cards to Cleaven Frendo and Steven Wellman.

Notwithstanding this double blow, Marsaxlokk led 2-1 with only stoppage time left to play. Kevin Sammut had put the sprightly Blues ahead three minutes before half-time but, on 69 minutes, Birkirkara made it 1-1 thanks to Etienne Barbara's cool finish from the penalty spot.

The pendulum swung back in favour of Marsaxlokk when Daniel Bogdanovic headed an excellent Cleaven Frendo cross past Andrzej Bledzewski. Marsaxlokk thought they had done enough to extend their winning run but substitute Michael Galea tucked a low shot past Reuben Gauci at the death to salvage a point for Birkirkara.

December 22, 2006
Marsaxlokk vs Valletta 1-0

Having come from behind to snatch a 2-1 victory in the corresponding first round fixture, Marsaxlokk once again had to work hard to maintain their perfect record against the spirited Citizens.

After a goalless first half, Valletta began to pose more problems to Marsaxlokk in the opening minutes of the second period but the latter shattered their opponents' growing confidence when grabbing the lead on 59 minutes.

Doda breached Valletta's resistance with a lofted volley from the edge of the penalty area following a corner action.

Marsaxlokk clung on to their slender lead in the remaining minutes to go seven points clear of Msida at the top of the standings.

February 2, 2007
Marsaxlokk vs Sliema 3-2

Squaring up to a resurgent Sliema Wanderers side invigorated by the arrival of Ray Farrugia as coach, Marsaxlokk were hellbent on denting their opponents' title hopes while enhancing their own, given that victory would leave them nine points clear at the top.

Two goals in the space of five first-half minutes appeared to have put Marsaxlokk on course to an easy victory. On 27 minutes, Doda was on hand to tap the ball home after Murphy Akanji, the Sliema goalkeeper, had failed to stop Sammut's shot. Five minutes later, Pace doubled Marsaxlokk's lead with an exquisite volley.

Marsaxlokk reached the break with a two-goal cushion but Sliema revived their hopes in the 62nd minute when Woods rolled the ball home from close range to make it 2-1. It was now Sliema's turn to force their opponents on the backfoot and their pressure produced an equaliser 15 minutes from time through Chucks Nwoko.

Talbot showed his intent to press forward in search of a winner when he brought on Schembri, back after a three-month lay-off caused by a foot injury, and Udo Nwoko, instead of Doda and Frendo respectively.

Just when it looked as though the game would finish in a 2-2 draw, Marsaxlokk landed the killer blow, Carlo Mamo heading home Sammut's corner a minute from the end of normal time.

Marsaxlokk maintained their nine-point advantage at the top and, more significantly perhaps, opened an 11-point gap on Sliema with both teams having one more match to play before the start of the Championship Pool.

March 3, 2007
Marsaxlokk vs Birkirkara 6-1

This was the game that swept away any lingering doubts about Marsaxlokk's standing as title favourites.

A 6-1 thrashing of Birkirkara, the defending champions, sent shockwaves through the Premier League as Marsaxlokk turned on the style to stay six points clear at the summit.

Bogdanovic scored a poker of goals between the 25th and 69th minutes after Sammut had given Marsaxlokk a 16th minute lead. Schembri made it half a dozen of goals for the dominant Marsaxlokk before Precious Monye scored a consolation goal for the out-of-sorts Stripes.

April 21, 2007
Birkirkara vs Marsaxlokk 2-3

If Marsaxlokk had been in command from start to finish in their 6-1 rout over Birkirkara, the Blues had a much tougher challenge on their hands in their fourth and final league clash with the outgoing champions.

Having succumbed to a 4-1 defeat to Sliema only three weeks earlier, Marsaxlokk needed a victory to boost their confidence and consolidate top spot.

Falling two goals behind by the 62nd minute, Roderick Briffa and Dario Larrosa the scorers for Birkirkara, it looked as though Marsaxlokk were going to wilt and give Sliema fresh hope of a late assault for the title. However, Talbot's men underlined their fighting spirit by turning defeat into victory in a most spectacular fashion.

After a succession of missed opportunities, Marsaxlokk bounced back into contention with a 64th minute goal from the impressive Schembri. Laying siege to Birkirkara's goal, Bogdanovic headed a Sammut cross past Bledzewski to make it 2-2.

Marsaxlokk completed their stunning comeback in the dying moments when Schembri turned well inside the box and planted the ball low into the net.

Thanks to their resilient fightback, Marsaxlokk moved nine points clear of Sliema who all but handed the title to their rivals the following day when they drew 1-1 with Valletta.

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