Four-star Qormi pile on the agony for 10-man Spartans

Ħamrun defender Adrian Ivanov (right) holds off Leighton Grech. Photo: Jason Borg

Ħamrun defender Adrian Ivanov (right) holds off Leighton Grech. Photo: Jason Borg

Qormi 4
Zarate 55, 68; Siritto 63; Chetcuti 78;
Ħamrun Spartans 0

Derby clashes are usually thrilling, action-packed affairs but the second-round duel between strugglers Qormi and Ħamrun Spartans failed to uphold that tradition.

One defining episode after only 15 minutes turned the game on its head as the dismissal of Ħamrun goalkeeper Andrea Cassar for fielding the ball outside the penalty area swayed the balance in Qormi’s favour.

Going down to 10 men so early in the derby was a hammer blow for the Spartans and their hopes of snapping an excruciating run of six defeats on the run.

Initially, the Spartans did well to withstand Qormi’s tame pressure as the first half ended goalless but a goal early in the second half broke their resistance with Jesmond Zerafa’s troops running riot thereafter.

Edison Bilbao Zarate helped himself to a brace as Qormi brutally exposed the Reds’ defensive frailties in the second half to dish out revenge on their rivals who had won the first-round meeting 1-0.

Since that victory, the Spartans have gone into freefall as yesterday’s defeat was their seventh in a row. With Melita and Rabat Ajax showing signs of improvement lately, the Spartans now have a relegation fight on their hands.

Qormi are not out of the woods yet but this win not only raised their morale, it also kept their Championship Pool hopes alive as the Yellow-Blacks have dislodged Balzan from eighth place in the table.

Former Malta U-21 goalkeeper Steve Sultana was handed a chance to stake his claim for a regular place as he deputised for Matthew Farrugia who was unavailable. Jonathan Bondin, back from injury, stepped in for suspended Nigerian winger Abubakar Bello-Osagie who is reportedly attracting the interest of Sliema Wanderers.

Making a welcome return for the under-fire Ħamrun Spartans were captain Roderick Fenech and Anton Vergilov who missed the 3-0 upset to Mosta because of suspension.

Coach Stefan Sultana didn’t restrict himself to two changes as Glenn Azzopardi was awarded a starting role while fellow youngsters Luke Grech, Daniel Zerafa and Adrian Borg were on the bench.

The two formations were matched, tactics-wise, as both coaches opted for 4-2-3-1.

Sebastiano Siritto was the central cog in Qormi’s attacking scheme with Joseph Chetcuti, Zarate and Leighton Grech forming an attacking midfield trident.

For the Spartans, the supporting roles in attack were assigned to Ryan Spiteri, Gianluca Calabretta and Azzopardi with Terence Vella leading the line.

Just over a minute from the start of the game had elapsed when the Spartans threatened to score.

Spiteri’s well-taken corner from the left soared to the far post and Massimo Grima produced a dipping header that landed atop the crossbar.

After a passage of scrappy football, the game threw up a potentially defining episode on 15 minutes. A cohesive Qormi move unlocked the Spartans rearguard as Siritto race behind the slow-moving defenders to reach Chetcuti’s through-ball. Andrea Cassar, the Ħamrun goalkeeper, reacted to the impending danger by dashing out of the penalty area before diving to block Siritto’s effort.

Referee Esther Azzopardi duly brandished the red card to dismiss Cassar, leaving the Spartans down to 10 men for over 75 minutes.

Anthony Curmi, Ħamrun’s reserve goalkeeper, replaced Azzopardi and Kris Thackray sent his free-kick wide.

The onus was now on Qormi to make their numerical supremacy count. What followed was a spell of Qormi pressure but the Spartans, who switched to 4-4-1 stood firm.

Thackray hit wide after a lengthy Qormi raid and, on the half-hour, Grech strode forward on the right before serving Siritto whose near-post effort was turned away by Curmi.

Eight minutes from half-time, Thackray headed over from Zarate’s corner. Danger loomed for the Spartans when Vergilov’s short backheader towards Curmi was intercepted by Siritto who glided past the Ħamrun goalkeeper but Fenech made a darting run to clear the ball away from the Qormi striker.

Vergilov’s mistake incensed his team-mates, especially Fenech and Grima who vociferously scolded the erring Bulgarian.

Late in the first half, Curmi blocked a dipping effort from Chetcuti and, at the other end, Calabretta’s central shot posed no trouble to Sultana.

The dearth of scoring chances in a largely dull first half did little to enliven the low-key atmosphere in the stands, despite this being a derby.

Vella dragged his shot wide after a solo move but, 10 minutes into the second half, Qormi put their noses in front. Latching onto a through-pass, Siritto looked certain to score but his close-range effort was bravely smothered way by Curmi only for Zarate to head the rebound into the net.

Five minutes later, Chetcuti’s looping free-kick from a wide position flew dangerously towards the Ħamrun goal but Curmi tipped the ball away for a corner.

The Spartans’ hopes of staging a comeback receded when, three minutes past the hour, Qormi doubled their lead. Bondin, excelling in an advanced midfield position, threaded another excellent pass to Siritto who nipped behind the Spartans defenders and rammed past Curmi.

Ħamrun’s predicament deepened midway into the second half when Qormi moved three goals up. Chetcuti laid the groundwork with a jinking run on the right before passing to Zarate who sidestepped his marker and dispatched a low shot into the far corner of the net.

It was all Qormi now. Fastening onto a long ball, Siritto held off Fenech but his conclusion was wide.

Vella briefly broke Qormi’s dominance with a thunderbolt that skimmed the crossbar.

Twelve minutes from time, Qormi scored their fourth, Chetcuti capping a fine performance by slotting past Curmi after he had run through the confused Hamrun defence.

Qormi went close to a fifth goal a minute from time when Stephen Wellman’s curling free-kick brushed the side-netting before substitute Gabriel Buttigieg drove just wide from an inviting position.

S. Sultana-6, K. Thackray-6, J. Chetcuti-7, L. Sciberras-6, M. Gauci-6, S. Siritto-7, E. Bilbao Zarate-7.5 (85 G. Buttigieg), J. Bondin-7 (80 C. Farrugia), A. Cassar-6, S. Wellman-6.5, L. Grech-6 (74 M. Bartolo).

Ħamrun Spartans
An. Cassar, A. Ivanov-5, R. Fenech-6, A. Vergilov-4, L. Vitanov-4, M. Grima-5.5, R. Spiteri-5 (60 L. Grech-5), G. Calabretta-4, T. Vella-5.5 (76 A. Borg), G. Azzopardi (16 A. Curmi-5), D. Camilleri-5.

Referee: Esther Azzopardi.

Yellow cards: Vitanov; Vella; Grima.

Red card: Cassar (Ħ) 15.

BOV player of the match: Edison Bilbao Zarate (Qormi).

Attendance: 775.

  P W D L F A Pts
Hibernians 16 10 2 4 33 18 32
Valletta 16 8 6 2 32 13 30
Birkirkara 16 8 6 2 30 16 30
Mosta 16 9 1 6 29 16 28
Tarxien 16 8 4 4 31 24 28
Sliema 16 8 3 5 27 16 27
Floriana 16 5 6 5 24 22 21
Qormi 16 6 2 8 24 27 20
Balzan 16 5 4 7 24 28 19
Ħamrun 16 3 4 9 20 39 13
Melita 16 2 4 10 15 44 10
Rabat Ajax 16 0 6 10 10 36 6

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