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Azzopardi faces old club as Sliema meet Birkirkara

Sliema's Brian Said fails to block a pass from Birkirkara striker Michael Galea.

Sliema's Brian Said fails to block a pass from Birkirkara striker Michael Galea.

An emotional afternoon awaits Sliema coach Stephen Azzopardi as he leads his new charges against his former team when the Wanderers take on Birkirkara in the main match of the weekend at the National Stadium today (4 p.m.), i.e. if the weather permits.

Azzopardi enjoyed a successful five-year spell as Birkirkara coach between 2002 and 2007. He stepped down from his job last February and his successor, former Malta defender John Buttigieg, has since undertaken a mini-revolution at the club, bringing in several new faces.

At present, only two points separate third-placed Sliema Wanderers from Birkirkara, who are fifth, after both teams played 11 matches.

Azzopardi admitted that there can be no room for sentiment this afternoon as he looks to help his team gain three points and reclaim top position in the standings.

"There's no denying that the match against Birkirkara holds special significance for me," Azzopardi told The Times yesterday.

"I spent five great years at Birkirkara during which the club achieved significant success, including a league title in 2005-06, and the people there helped me feel at home.

"I will always be grateful to Birkirkara but now I am the coach of Sliema Wanderers and once the match starts, I will do everything in my power to help my team obtain the three points.

"At the moment, the race for Championship Pool places is very tight with seven teams fighting for six spots. The next three matches are crucial for all teams involved and victory against Birkirkara is vital for us to remain in the top part of the table."

Azzopardi must effect one change from the team that drew 1-1 with Hamrun Spartans at the Centenary Stadium on Wednesday. Midfielder Roderick Bajada cannot face Birkirkara after his red card against the Spartans triggered an automatic one-match ban. Flank defenders Ian Azzopardi and Alex Muscat are still sidelined with injuries but Serbian midfielder Nesko Milovanovic is available after serving his one-match suspension in midweek.

A month after he was unveiled as the successor of Ray Farrugia at the helm of Sliema, Azzopardi sounded relatively pleased with how things have panned out so far. He has now set his sights on a consistent run of results that would enable Sliema to mount a serious challenge for the Premier League title.

"I have only been in charge of two matches as Sliema coach, against Msida and Hamrun Spartans," he said.

"The team's performances were quite good, especially when one considers that these were played at the Hamrun ground and the Centenary Stadium, two venues where Sliema tend to struggle to show their best.

"My hope is that we will be able to play our matches at the National Stadium on a regular basis. I feel that on such pitch we can produce our best football and that in turn would improve our chances of winning matches."

Buttigieg, the man in charge at Birkirkara, will surely do his utmost to outwit his predecessor in his bid to boost his team's charge for a top-six place.

The Stripes have been far from consistent lately with two wins and two defeats from their last four matches. The Birkirkara coach knows that his team must start to pick up points on a regular basis if they are to keep up their challenge at the top end of the league standings.

Having steered his team to a fine 2-0 win in the corresponding first round match, Buttigieg will be optimistic of doing the double over the ambitious Blues.

"Matches against Sliema Wanderers are always important for our club but this fixture has extra significance given the tight situation in the table at present," Buttigieg said.

"With so many teams close to each other, it's imperative not to lose matches. Obviously, having the better of Sliema is never an easy task but my players have been playing quite well lately. As we've already shown on several occasions this season, I believe that we can hold our own against a top team like Sliema.

"A good result from our next match will provide a good injection of confidence for the players. Our aim is to put together a good run of results and make sure of a Championship Pool berth as soon as possible."

Birkirkara have been plagued by the absence of some key players lately. Skipper Michael Galea has just returned to the team after a rather lengthy absence while Central Africa striker Marcelin Tamboulas has been released. Ivory Coast forward Amed Davy Sylla, formerly of B36 Torshavn, has been signed as Tamboulas's replacement but cannot make his debut before the New Year.

"Once the transfer window re-opens next week, we will assess the potential of the squad and see if we need to strengthen certain areas," Buttigieg said.

"I want to make it clear though that if we decide to enter the transfer market, we will only go for players whom we believe can fit well into our squad and improve Birkirkara FC.

"It's not easy to sign players in January but if the opportunity arose, I will take it in the hope of making the team stronger."

First round result - Birkirkara vs Sliema 2-0.

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