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Balzan, Birkirkara set for fitting curtain-raiser

Balzan players hope to transfer their promising form in Europe to the domestic scene when they kick off their league campaign against Birkirkara.

Balzan players hope to transfer their promising form in Europe to the domestic scene when they kick off their league campaign against Birkirkara.

The wait is finally over for Maltese football fans as the 2018-19 season kicks off this evening when two contenders for BOV Premier League title, Birkirkara and Balzan, will go head to head at the National Stadium (kick-off: 7pm).

After weeks of hard training and transfer activity, all 14 teams in the BOV Premier League will gauge their level of competitiveness when they make their first appearance between today and tomorrow.

With champions Valletta opening their title defence tomorrow against Sliema Wanderers, Balzan and Birkirkara will have the chance to make a statement of intent when they face each other in what promises to be a mouthwatering clash.

Birkirkara and Balzan experienced a contrasting run up to the new season both on and off the field.

The Stripes have completely revamped their squad after a low key 2017-18 campaign that saw them miss out on the major honours.

In fact coach Paul Zammit has only confirmed two overseas players from his squad last season, Macedonia goalkeeper Kristian Naumovski and Croatian midfielder Mislav Andjelkovic.

Birkirkara have registered eight new foreign players with Nigerian Uchenna Umeh, formerly of Valletta, the only one who has experience of playing in the Maltese league.

The Stripes have also brought in some tried-and-trusted personnel in midfielder Paul Fenech and striker Michael Mifsud who have enough experience to help them make a leap in quality.

With so many changes, Zammit said that today’s match against Balzan will be the perfect barometer for his team to see where they stand in comparison to their league rivals.

“For us the match against Balzan is a perfect test to gauge our strength at the start of the season,” Zammit told the Times of Malta yesterday.

“Personally, I think that Balzan are one of the three main contenders for the league title this season alongside Valletta and Gżira United. They have enjoyed a very strong participation in the Europa League where they produced some excellent performances against very strong sides and will be difficult to beat.

“Balzan have made the right signings in key areas and we need to be at our best to try and come away with a positive result.”

Zammit admitted that the squad overhaul this summer had left the club with an impossible task to progress from their Europa League clash against KI Klaksvik, of Faroes Islands.

“Realistically we never stood any chance of going through in Europe as we arrived for the two matches against KI Klaksvik with a completely new team who had little time to gel tactically,” Zammit said.

“Now the situation is much better as the players have now settled down well in the new environment and are used more to the tactical system we will be playing this season.

“The first five matchdays of this year’s championship will be very important for our club as apart from Balzan we will also be facing Valletta, Floriana and Gżira United and these matches will surely give us a better picture of whether we are capable of challenging for the top honours.”

Balzan are heading into the season with renewed determination to make up for last season’s disappointment of missing out on the league title on the final day of the season.

Marko Micovic have revitalised his squad this summer with some quality signings. Goalkeeper Steve Sultana has replaced the departing Ivan Janjusevic while they have strengthened their midfield department with Serbian Nenad Slivic and Dale Camilleri while Riccardo Correa adds more energy on the flanks.

The early indications looked very promising as Balzan took the Europa League by storm with some impressive performances that saw them knock out Azerbaijan’s FK Kesla and then were just edged out by former Cup Winners Cup winners Slovan Bratislava, in the second qualifying round of the competition.

Vladimir Simovic, the Balzan technical director, said that the indications are looking very promising after a very encouraging participation in Europe but he says that the real business starts with the Premier League debut.

“Facing Birkirkara at the start of the Premier League provides a very difficult start but we are really looking forward to show all our potential,” the former Red Star Belgrade official said.

“We certainly didn’t like how last season finished for us but we are now back and fully determined to put up a much sterner challenge.

“I think that we are in a better place than last season as the coach and myself have a year of experience in Maltese football and we know better what it takes to be competitive here.

“Personally I think that our squad looks stronger than last term. We have brought in some very good players who have already showed in Europe that they can do a job for us so we are looking forward to it.”

Simovic said that Balzan have little idea of what to expect from Birkirkara this evening given the number of changes they made in their squad.

“Birkirkara changed a lot of players this summer so for us it was very difficult to analyse them. We have very little information on many of their new overseas players,” Simovic said.

“But in Paul Zammit they certainly have one of the best coaches in the Premier League and he will ensure that his team will make life difficult for us.

“Our goal is always the same, to go out and get the three points. It  will not be easy but the players have shown time and again this summer that they are capable of performing on big occasions and hopefully we can enjoy a positive start to the new season.”

Programme

Playing today
National Stadium: 7pm Birkirkara vs Balzan.
Tedesco Stadium: 6.30pm Qormi vs Senglea Athletic; 8.45pm Hibernians vs Pietà Hotspurs.

Tomorrow
National Stadium: 6.30pm Ħamrun Spartans vs Floriana; 8.30pm Sliema Wanderers vs Valletta.
Tedesco Stadium: 6.30pm Mosta vs St Andrews; 8.45pm Tarxien Rainbows vs Gżira United.

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