Preview: Valletta vs Balzan Published on: 01-11-2014

A hard-fought victory over Naxxar Lions may have provided a much-needed tonic but Valletta haven’t turned the corner yet. A game against Balzan is usually regarded as a straightforward fixture for Valletta but their early-season woes allied with their opponents’ solid start mean that the stuttering champions are heading into their first-round meeting with the Reds with a sense of apprehension.

Balzan have suffered only one defeat this season, three fewer than Valletta, but they are only three points clear of the Citizens after three consecutive draws. Their three-match winless streak has raised question marks about Balzan’s ability to maintain a top-four position but coach Oliver Spiteri insisted that there is no cause for alarm.

“We knew that it was going to be difficult for us to keep our early-season momentum going,” Spiteri told Times of Malta ahead of today’s game at the Victor Tedesco Stadium (4.15pm).

“This is largely down to the fact that the other teams are now more familiar with our way of playing while the team’s physical condition may have tailed off a bit. “That said, I still look at the glass as half full rather than half empty. I mean we have won one and drawn three of our last four games.

“We drew against Floriana, Pietá Hotspurs and Sliema Wanderers and they are all valid teams who are going through a positive spell. “There is no reason to be negative as long as we keep playing well and creating chances.” Spiteri must make one change from the goalless draw against Sliema as Colombian defender Elkin Serrano is suspended.

Although Valletta have been well below their best so far, Spiteri warned against underestimating the wounded champions. “Valletta are always Valletta,” he said. “Besides possessing a strong squad with so many good players, they also have the best support. “Gilbert Agius and Ivan Zammit are trying to turn things around and I’m convinced that it won’t be long before Valletta return to being a force in the Premier League.” A positive result against Valletta would surely be seen as further proof of Balzan’s improvement this season. Spiteri believes that all is in place for his club to push for higher objectives. “Every game is a test for us,” the former Vittoriosa coach said. “Before the start of the season, and even now, many were sceptical about Balzan’s ability to fight for a high position in the table.

“We have a good base and it’s time Balzan move away from the small-club mentality. We need to aim higher and I’m confident that we can give a decent challenge to any team in the Premier.” While Balzan, powered by the financial input of Anton Tagliaferro, have raised their ambitions, Valletta are struggling to keep theirs alive.

They clearly need to put together a winning run to resurrect their title hopes but Gilbert Agius is not looking too far ahead. “We are taking it one game at a time,” the Valletta coach said. “We are pleased to have picked up three points from our game against Naxxar. “Although the team’s performance was not spectacular, we were happy with the commitment shown by our players, especially in the second half when we were down to 10 men.

“They rolled up their sleeves. “Now we have another difficult game against Balzan. They have had a promising start and I have a lot of respect for their coach.” Agius believes that Balzan have been significantly strengthened by their close-season reinforcements. “Balzan have made some good signings,” Agius said.

“If you look at their team you will notice that Balzan have several new players, including foreigners. “They have also got some interesting Maltese players. Their team is completely different from last season in terms of personnel.” Coming after back-to-back defeats to Pietà Hotspurs and Birkirkara, the win over Naxxar has restored a semblance of calm and stability at Valletta but there is still pressure on the champions to show better consistency.

“There is always pressure, even after a win,” Agius observed. “When you are at a top club, there’s tension before every game and the players are aware of this. “Every player who turns out for Valletta must know how to handle the pressure of representing this club.”

The appointment of Ivan Zammit as technical director three weeks ago was seen as undermining Agius’s authority at Valletta but the former Malta captain has no qualms about working with his former team-mate. “I’ve got no problems with Ivan Zammit,” Agius stressed. “Obviously, being in sole charge of a team is one thing but working alongside another coach is another as you must share your thoughts and ideas with him.

“I believe that we are on the right track but in football, everything depends on the results.” Portuguese midfielder Hugo Faria, sent off in the second half of the Naxxar game, is out with a one-match ban but otherwise Agius and Zammit have a full squad at their disposal.

Source - Times of Malta