Sublime Nafti lifts City Published on: 05-04-2016

It’s a measure of the esteem in which Abdelkarim Nafti is held at Valletta that he was the only foreign player to survive the summer clear-out following the arrival of coach Paul Zammit.
Nafti’s contribution inevitably came under increased scrutiny in the early months of Zammit’s second spell at the helm of Valletta but the Tunisian winger has risen to the challenge as his electric performances helped the team maintain their title charge.
Further proof of Nafti’s sparkling form, if any were needed, was provided during Saturday’s tricky game against Tarxien Rainbows.
With the score goalless, Nafti set up Federico Falcone for Valletta’s opener early in the second half before sealing the points with a scintillating drive.
With Nafti, Falcone and Jhonnattann spearheading their attacking charge, Valletta have defied the pre-season scepticism about their title chances as they retained a six-point lead over Hibernians at the top.
“This season, we are more united as a team,” Nafti told Times of Malta.
“We are like one big family and that is very important in football. We’re in it together, the players, technical staff, team manager and supporters, and this is our strength.”
Nafti, who captured a league and cup double in 2013/14, his first season at Valletta, believes that the unity within the squad has played a crucial role in their title challenge.
“In my first season with Valletta, we won the double but we had to do it the hard way,” Nafti recalled. “We only won the title in our last game (against Birkirkara).
“This season, 70 per cent of the players are new. The club had to build a new squad in the summer and, usually, it takes three to four months for a team to gel.
“We started to click in September.
“There’s a saying that when the big boy falls, he must show the courage and strength to get back on his feet and this is what Valletta have done this season.
“We are on a run of 18 games without defeat since November and that says a lot about our consistency.”
Six points clear at the top with only four games to go, Valletta have good reason to be upbeat about their prospects of claiming their 23rd top-flight title but Nafti is not getting ahead of himself.
“In football, you can’t take anything for granted,” the former Tunisia international said. “We are keeping our feet on the ground.
“We are taking it game by game and this approach has served us well since September.
“We have four games left but, at the moment, we are only thinking about our match against Floriana next Friday.”
Famed for his ball skills, vision and shooting prowess, Nafti has long forged a reputation as one of the most gifted foreigners in the Premier League but, coming from a professional level, it took him a while to get to grips with the peculiarities of Maltese football.
“When I came to Malta, I found it a bit difficult to adapt to the system because I was coming from a professional environment,” Nafti, who played for Tunisian side Club Africain before joining Valletta in 2013, said.
“I was used to a different philosophy but after a while, I began to settle, also because I found people at the club who were very understanding.
“The Maltese players have got a lot of quality and I know what I’m saying because I’ve played against so many players in my career.
“They need to gain more self-confidence but it’s not easy for them because most are not full-time professionals.
“A 17-year-old can’t develop if he has to work in the morning and train in the evening.
“Young players should be given the opportunity to concentrate only on football, at least for three years between the ages of 17 and 20, in order to fulfil their potential.
“This season, the level of the Premier League has improved a lot and most of the games have been open.
“Teams like Tarxien, Floriana, Balzan and Pembroke Athleta have raised their standards, meaning that now there are seven to eight strong teams in the championship which makes it more competitive.”
Performance level
Although Nafti has played consistently well since signing for Valletta three years ago, the general perception is that he has further stepped up his performance level this season as the 34-year-old has scored 12 league goals and created many others.
“In my first season, Valletta won the double but people tend to pay more attention to those who score goals,” Nafti said.
“I’m a playmaker, my job is to provide assists to other players to score and my performance level in the last three seasons has been the same.
“In my first year, I scored 10 goals and delivered something like 15 assists.
“Last year was disappointing because we didn’t win anything but this season, we are back in the spotlight because we are first and we are playing really great as a team.
“My approach to the game is the same but the environment at Valletta is excellent and that helps a lot.”
Valletta are bracing themselves for a gruelling title run-in as they face Floriana, Bir-kirkara, Balzan and Hibs next but Nafti has vowed to do everything in his power to lead his team to championship glory.
“The most important thing is that we win the league,” Nafti said.
“Only we can lose it but I don’t think that’s going to happen because we are all determined to reach our target and make the Valletta people happy.”
On the back of his inspirational performances this season, Valletta are widely expected to offer Nafti a new deal when his current contract expires in June.
Not that he is in a rush to sign.
“I live by the day. At the moment, I’m not thinking about my future but come June, we can sit down and talk,” Nafti said.

Source - Times of Malta