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Nwoke drives Floriana forward

Daniel Nwoke was still a teenager when he left Nigeria for Malta in 2001, harbouring dreams of earning a living as a professional footballer.

His early days in Malta were difficult as Nwoke entertained high hopes of earning a contract with Birkirkara but his trial with the team proved unsuccessful.

Determined to soldier on, Nwoke eventually signed for Naxxar Lions with whom he spent one season. In the summer of 2002, Nwoke sealed a move to Msida St Joseph, then regarded as one of the rising clubs in local football, and it was with the Saints where the lanky Nigerian began to show his true potential.

After five seasons with Msida, Nwoke felt the time was right to seek a new challenge in a new country and headed to Finland where he joined Tampere United after leaving a positive impression during his trial.

Now 27, Nwoke decided to return to Malta to join Floriana on a short-term deal this month after his contract with PK-35, his last Finnish club, expired in October.

If Nwoke struggled to make his breakthrough in Maltese football 10 years ago, he has not encountered such problems in his second coming as the Nigerian has taken the BOV Premier League by storm, scoring four goals in his first two appearances in a Floriana shirt.

“I don’t know what to say,” Nwoke replied when asked whether he was confident of proving an instant hit for Floriana. “I just wanted to come here and do my best as I’ve always done in my career.”

Although Nwoke forged a reputation as a powerful forward during his stint with Msida, he seems to have improved my leaps and bounds during his time in Finland.

“Playing in a different league, you always try to improve and learn new things,” Nwoke observed. “Whatever you learn, whatever you carry from a previous experience, you try to apply it wherever you’re going.

“People here had seen me before but I think I’m a different player now.”

Nwoke’s electric performances suggest that the Nigerian has reached the peak of his career but he stressed that it’s still too early to make any conclusions about his impact here.

“I would leave it to the fans to judge whether I’m playing the best football,” Nwoke said.

“I’ve only played two games for Floriana, so it’s still early to reach conclusions. I had a successful time in Finland as I won league titles with Tampere United and also played in the Champions League and UEFA Cup.”

Nwoke is justifiably pleased with his contribution in his first two outings since joining Floriana.

“I’m happy with my performances so far,” Nwoke said. “Coming back here, I felt under a bit of pressure to perform because you want to show your worth, especially in the first few games.”

Floriana’s pursuit of Nwoke came to light last month but the striker revealed that reports that he had already agreed a deal with the Greens took him by surprise as he was still weighing up his options at the time.

“First of all, I must say that Floriana were one of several clubs who approached me in the last few weeks,” Nwoke said. “I had a concrete offer to join a club in the Faroe Islands and also had enquiries from Finnish teams.

“There was something about Floriana that made me think seriously about their offer. I mean the president (Johan Said) was very persistent, he really pushed hard to get me. But, I was surprised to read reports that I had already agreed to join Floriana as, at the time, I wasn’t even coming to Malta.

“I was still considering other options. Sliema Wanderers had also been in contact. I took my time to decide but in the end, I chose Floriana because they were the club who tried hardest to sign me.”

Four goals and two man-of-the-match performances in his first two outings more than vindicate Floriana’s determination to capture Nwoke. Given his strong impact on the team, Floriana are likely to move quickly to offer Nwoke a contract extension but the Nigerian has no intention to rush things.

“Right now, my aim is just to concentrate on my commitments with Floriana until the end of this season,” Nwoke said.

After four years away from Maltese football, Nwoke has noticed some positive changes in the local game.

“There have been some changes but I can’t really say whether the level of the Premier League has gone up or down since I left,” Nwoke said. “But, the signs are very encouraging.

“Sometimes foreign players ask you about Maltese football, and at the moment I can tell other people that things are improving.”

Nwoke and his strike partner Ivan Woods notched a brace each as Floriana thrashed Vittoriosa Stars 6-1 last Sunday.

Their victory, the third in a row, catapulted Floriana to second in the table, 12 points behind leaders and bitter rivals Valletta, but with the points to be halved at the end of the second round, whispers that the Greens may play a meaningful role in the title race are growing louder.

“Everything is possible,” Nwoke said. “But, we must keep this positive attitude because the league is not over yet. We must aim high.”

A lack of firepower was seen as Floriana’s chief weakness in the opening four months of the season but the arrivals of Nwoke and Bulgarian striker Dragomir Draganov, who opened his account last weekend, have significantly bolstered the Greens’ forward line.

However, Nwoke said Floriana were already strong before he and Draganov joined them. “Even before I came here, I regularly followed the progress of the Maltese league,” Nwoke said. “I knew that there was potential in this Floriana team. Draganov and I are a plus to what Floriana already had.”

Although Nwoke is not looking beyond the end of the current season, he hopes to help Floriana win an honour.

“I want to win things with Floriana and I’ve said this when I decided to join the club,” Nwoke said. “My aim is to help Floriana be successful.

“The main objective was to make the top six but we must try to achieve higher targets now.”

Valletta moved 12 points clear at the top of the BOV Premier League after pulling off a 2-0 victory over second-placed Tarxien Rainbows on Sunday.

Floriana’s 6-1 rout of bottom-placed Vittoriosa Stars will have enhanced their fans’ optimism in their team’s chances of joining the title race as the Greens have moved alongside Tarxien in second place on 24 points.

The race for the final berths in the Championship Pool is hotting up with Marsaxlokk lifting some pressure from their shoulders with a 2-0 win over champions Birkirkara while Sliema Wanderers and Qormi failed to gain ground after cancelling each other out in a scoreless draw.

Hibernians revived their flickering hopes of a top-six berth when they clinched their first win in 13 matches with a comeback 4-2 victory over Ħamrun Spartans.

Denni tormented Tarxien, his former team, as he swayed the tide in Valletta’s favour with a man-of-the-match performance.

The Brazilian livewire earned his team a first-half penalty after he was upended in the area by Lee Galea and Terrence Scerri made no mistake from the spot. Denni then applied the coupe de grace 20 minutes from time when he turned home Scerri’s pass to seal another three vital points for the Citizens.

Daniel Nwoke and Ivan Woods bagged a quickfire brace to put Floriana 4-0 up before further goals from Dragomir Draganov, his first for the club, and Manolito Micallef sealed the Greens’ third successive victory. Leighton Grech scored a late consolation goal for Vittoriosa.

Marsaxlokk opened a three-point gap on their nearest rivals for the sixth and final place in the Championship Pool when they toppled Birkirkara 2-0.

Malcolm Licari put the southerners ahead with a solo effort on 67 minutes and Gareth Sciberras added a second seven minutes later to give Marsaxlokk their first win in six matches.

Hibs finally ended their winning drought when they put on a strong second half display to see off Ħamrun 4-2.

The Paolites took an early lead through Edward Herrera but the Spartans turned the game around by the interval with goals from Massimo Grima and Ryan Fenech. However, Ħamrun, who had Fenech dismissed late on, faded after the break. Hibs came back strongly and goals from Bjorn Kristensen, Paul McManus and Steve Pisani wrapped up a stunning victory that resurrected their hopes of a Championship Pool place.

The defeat was another blow for the Spartans who lost Martin Hrubsa to injury.

The Czech defender is facing a long spell on the sidelines after tearing his cruciate ligaments in the first half of Friday’s game.

Premier League statistics

Scorers, red cards

Birkirkara: Lattes 5; Galea 4 (1 pen); Vella 3, Fenech 3; Cilia 2, Tabone 2 (1 pen); Vukanac, Borg.
Floriana: Woods 6 (2 pen.); Nwoke 4; Mecerod 2, Caruana 2; Dzhorov, Darmanin, Agius, Said, Draganov, Micallef.
Ħamrun Spartans: Spiteri 8; Grima 5; Pereira 4, Shields 3; Fenech 2 (1 pen), Anizoba 2, Mangion.
Red cards: Hrubsa (vs Floriana, vs Valletta), Bonnici (vs Floriana), Ryan Fenech (vs Floriana).
Hibernians: McManus 5; Cohen 3 (1 pen), Herrera 3; Pisani 2; Pulis, Caruana, Clarke, Farrugia, Pearson, Kristensen.
Red card: Pulis (vs Ħamrun Spartans).
Marsaxlokk: Effiong 8; Templeman 2, Guerreiro 2; Sciberras 2; Alcorse pen, Kokavessis, Deanov, Licari.
Red cards: Alcorse (vs Valletta), Mamo (vs Floriana).
Qormi: Mallia 3, Frendo 3; Bello Osagie 2; Bjedov, J. Farrugia, Chetcuti, Camilleri.
Red cards: Bondin (vs Ħamrun), Hojung (vs Vittoriosa Stars).
Sliema Wanderers: Mifsud Triganza 5, Obiefule 4; Lima 3; Lachkhem 2; Scerri.
Red cards: Mintoff (vs Birkirkara), B. Muscat (vs Vittoriosa).
Tarxien Rainbows: Bueno 5; Sergio 4, Ricardo Costa 4; Cristiano 3 (1 pen), Caruana, Everton. Own goals: Pearson (vs Hibernians); Kang (vs Qormi).
Valletta: Scerri 12 (4 pens); Denni 8 (1 pen), Sammut 5; Falzon 2, Pace 2, G. Agius 2; Zammit, E. Agius, Temile, Borg.
Red cards: Ramon (vs Floriana), Falzon (vs Ħamrun).
Vittoriosa: Ewurum 5; Santos Silva 3, Edison 3 (1 pen); Micallef, Grech. Own goal: Gauci (vs Hibs).
Red cards: Campagnoli (vs Valletta), Edison (vs Birkirkara, vs Sliema), Mifsud (vs Valletta).

Next fixtures

U*Bet FA Trophy: Tomorrow – (Centenary Stadium) 6 p.m. Floriana vs Mosta; 8 p.m. Ħamrun vs Tarxien. Hibs Stadium 6 p.m. Hibs vs St Andrew’s; 8 p.m. Marsaxlokk vs Vittoriosa.

BOV Premier League:
Saturday: (National Stadium) 2 p.m. Birkirkara vs Ħamrun ; 4 p.m. Valletta vs Marsaxlokk.
Sunday: (Hibs Stadium) 2 p.m. Hibs vs Vittoriosa; 4 p.m. Floriana vs Qormi.
Monday: (Tedesco Stadium) 7.30 p.m. Sliema vs Tarxien.

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