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Rivals aiming to put on show of force

Birkirkara goalkeeper Bernard Paris grabs the ball as Hamrun captain Stefan Sultana looks on.

Birkirkara goalkeeper Bernard Paris grabs the ball as Hamrun captain Stefan Sultana looks on.

Crunch time is back for the big guns, especially rivals Valletta and Birkirkara who will be engaged in a head-to-head duel this afternoon in their first Premier League outing for more than four weeks.

Premier League football has been missing from the local sporting agenda for more than a month due to the re-seeding of the National Stadium's pitch and the international break but normal service will be resumed this weekend.

The fans of Valletta and Birkirkara have been eagerly awaiting today's match, the first between these two adversaries this season, in the hope that victory would set either team on way to mounting a strong challenge for the title.

Birkirkara, who have not played a competitive game since the 2-2 league draw with Hamrun Spartans on October 5, have 12 points from seven matches, three more than Valletta.

A 0-0 draw with Hamrun was the outcome of Valletta's last league match but earlier this month, the Citizens easily accounted for Division One side St Patrick in the first round of the FA Trophy, winning 4-0.

John Buttigieg, the Birkirkara coach, lamented his side's lack of competitive action since early October.

"We're the only Premier League team not to have played a competitive game for seven weeks," Buttigieg told The Times.

"The other teams have had the advantage of playing after our last match against Hamrun and some were also involved in cup football but our last appearance was in the first week of October."

Birkirkara revamped their squad last summer after their bid to defend the title they won in 2005-06 was as good as over by February.

The Stripes enjoyed a positive start to the season but their performances took a nosedive in their last league matches.

Added to their notorious rivalry with Valletta, Birkirkara's troubles to maintain their early-season momentum has increased the pressure on the team to outsmart their rivals.

Buttigieg tried to put a lid on the high expectations surrounding this afternoon's match.

"This fixture is no different from the others," he remarked. "There are three points at stake and we will do our best to win them all."

The Birkirkara faithful certainly don't regard a meeting with Valletta as a normal fixture though, for some it carries the same weight as a derby.

Buttigieg is aware that there is no love lost between the two sets of fans.

"I know that for the fans, matches against Valletta hold special significance," Buttigieg said.

"This obviously puts more pressure on the players but the bottom line is that we always aim to gain the three points, regardless of the opposition."

Birkirkara have no major injury worries but Buttigieg is concerned about his lack of attacking options.

At the time of writing, African forward Marcelin Tamboulas had yet to report back for training after travelling to his home country for family reasons.

Even in the unlikely event that Tamboulas returns to Malta before today' 4 p.m. kick-off, Buttigieg is unlikely to name him in the starting XI.

Club captain Michael Galea will also miss today's clash as he is abroad.

"Tamboulas and Galea are important players for us but their absence gives others the opportunity to prove that they are worthy of a first-team place," Buttigieg said.

Valletta coach Paul Zammit must also make do without two key players. Skipper Gilbert Agius is still recuperating from a thigh injury and is not expected to make his comeback before the derby against neighbouring foes Floriana next month.

Midfielder Claude Mattocks is yet to regain full fitness after twisting his ankle during training earlier this month.

Zammit's priority

Amidst Valletta's struggles to live up to the pre-season hype about their title credentials, Zammit has come under increasing pressure to turn the team's fortunes around as soon as possible.

An unimpressive performance in the 0-0 draw against Hamrun did nothing to stem the tide of cynicism surrounding the Citizens, in the process fuelling speculation of another assault on the players' market come January.

However, Zammit yesterday insisted that he's only concerned about restoring Valletta's status as genuine title contenders before the next transfer window.

"There has been talk of more signings in January but at this moment in time, I'm only thinking about how we can improve results until the end of December," Zammit said.

"I strongly believe that Valletta will be back on track if we step up our level of performance in the next few games. The match against Birkir-kara is the first in a series of important tests for our team.

"It's perhaps too early to describe this fixture as do-or-die but the importance of this match is massive due to a number of factors.

"We need the points, we need to start winning to raise self-confidence within our team and we must also do well in this match because we're facing strong opponents who have shown that they can offer a stern challenge to any team."

Zammit is hoping that a victory today would imbue his team with fresh impetus for the rest of the season.

"We're looking forward to this match," he said.

"I am still confident that this group of players can get better and succeed in the long term but it's high time we start to prove our worth."

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