Day 22 Valletta 1 Birkirkara 1
The second-round skirmish bet-ween heavyweights Valletta and Birkirkara was defined by the heroics of two players who had been under growing pressure to get their act together.
Birkirkara’s build-up had been overshadowed by doubts over Justin Haber’s participation in yesterday’s encounter amid criticism of his level of concentration this season but the experienced goalkeeper repaid coach Paul Zammit’s faith with a series of vital saves in the dying stages of this slow-burning game.
On the other side of the fence, there was Roderick Briffa.
The Malta stalwart had also been targeted for criticism for his below-par performance in Valletta’s 2-1 reverse to Balzan the previous week but Briffa provided the perfect riposte to his critics as his last-gasp header rescued a point for the champions.
All the action came in the final 15 minutes. For much of the game, Valletta and Birkirkara struggled to justify their lofty reputations with both looking short of confidence as a result of their negative results in their previous outings and Hibernians’ impregnable position at the summit.
It was only late in the game that they finally brought some much-needed urgency to their approach.
Birkirkara’s second-half impro-vement looked to have been rewarded when Nikola Vukanac fired them ahead with 13 minutes remaining but they were pegged by Briffa.
It was the third game in a row that Birkirkara conceded a late equaliser but yesterday they risked leaving the stadium empty-handed were it not for Haber who pulled off two smart saves in stoppage time.
The outcome was fair as neither side did enough to win but the main beneficiaries were Hibernians, who will begin the last round with an eight-point advantage, and, to a lesser extent Birkirkara who will head into the home straight level on 22 points with Valletta.
Right-back Edward Herrera recovered from a slight injury but Zammit could not bank on captain Gareth Sciberras, and Brazilian forwards Rafael Ledesma and Eliandro, all sidelined with injuries, while midfielder Ryan Scicluna was ruled out with suspension.
The Birkirkara coach handed a starting berth to Malta midfielder Rowen Muscat who rejoined Birkirkara last month following a short stint in Hungary.
Faced with a dearth of strikers in his squad, Zammit set out his team in a 4-1-4-1 formation with Nigerian Shola Shodiya Haruna deployed as lone striker and Muscat sitting in front of the back four with captain Paul Fenech and Edmond Agius, yesterday facing his former team, in support.
With Dutch forward Djameel Leeflang sidelined with a foot injury and Englishman Lateef Elford-Alliyu only certified fit to start on the bench, Valletta took to the field without a recognised centre-forward. The onus of spearheading Valletta’s attack fell on youngster Llywelyn Cremona who was flanked by the experienced Roderick Briffa as coach Ivan Zammit switched to 4-4-2.
The other notable change in City’s line-up was the inclusion of Italian goalkeeper Pietro Marino who was preferred to Nicky Vella.
The game was off to a low-key start, very much in keeping with the wretched atmosphere in the stands as the two teams’ failure to keep the pressure on tearaway leaders Hibernians clearly dampened the fans’ optimism.
Close to the 15th-minute mark, Valletta appealed for a penalty when Hamza Barry darted into the box only to go down when coming in contact with Nikola Vukanac but referee Esther Azzopardi saw nothing untoward.
The champions began to assert themselves. Tunisian winger Abdelkarim Nafti swung in a menacing cross from a free-kick but Haber made himself big as he palmed the ball away from the danger zone.
Midway into the first half, the champions fashioned a glorious chance as Barry’s dipping cross from the right landed in the goalmouth and in the path of Cremona whose point-blank flick appeared to take a deflection off the sliding Mauricio Mazzetti but Haber was in the right spot to repel the Valletta striker’s effort.
The danger refused to go away as the ball glanced off Cremona but his attempt whizzed across the face of goal before landing wide of the far post, to the discernible relief of the Birkirkara players.
Mazzetti then slid in to block a dangerous effort from Nafti as Valletta remained the brisker side.
It was not before the 32nd minute that Birkirkara mustered their first chance as Agius’s free-kick brought a routine save from Marino.
Shorn of their most creative elements, Birkirkara were finding it hard to make inroads in attack with Haruna reduced to a peripheral figure for much of the opening 36 minutes. Knowledge that a draw was enough for them to start the final round level on points with Valletta may also have influenced their pragmatic approach.
A mistake by Ryan Camilleri gifted Birkirkara an opening as the City defender’s forward run was halted by Fenech who advanced through the middle but his pass towards Haruna was intercepted by Steve Borg, back in the fray for the Citizens after suspension kept him out of the 2-1 upset to Balzan.
Mazzetti was having a great game for Birkirkara in the heart of defence. A minute from half-time, the Argentine showed composure as he beat Briffa for speed to cut out a long pass from Fenech.
Birkirkara looked more vibrant at the start of the second half. Agius miscued his shot after being teed up by Herrera who, moments later, sent in a dangerous cross-shot that was tipped away by Marino.
Zammit, the Valletta coach, made his first change, bringing on Elford-Alliyu for Jonathan Caruana, who had been deployed in front of defence, as Cremona dropped to the middle.
As a thick cloud drifted over the National Stadium, the heavens opened.
Twelve minutes into the second half, Ryan Fenech chested the ball to Elford-Alliyu but his half-volley was off target.
Marino needed two attempts to tame Vukanac’s ferocious free-kick from the distance.
The Stripes plucked up courage and their fans raised the volume.
They would have seized the lead but for a fine save from Marino who smothered away Mattheus Bissi’s strike after Agius’s corner had been deflected into the Brazilian’s path.
With 14 minutes remaining, Dutch striker Nassir Maachi came on for the limping Rowen Muscat. A minute later, Birkirkara struck.
Valletta were found wanting at the back as a long ball soared toward Haruna who headed it past Borg and towards defender Vukanac who rammed past Marino.
Birkirkara were in delirium. As the minutes ticked away, Valletta staged a belated reaction, forcing two quickfire corners.
The champions thought they had equalised when Nafti’s cross was headed on by Vladimir Savicevic, who had just replaced Dimech, with the ball dropping at the feet of the incoming Briffa whose goalbound shot was warded off by Fenech.
There was to be no reprieve for Birkirkara the next time Valletta pumped the ball into the box as Briffa’s glancing header, following Bissi’s attempt to clear Barry’s cross, had the better of Haber.
The game erupted as the two teams became stretched. Maachi was wide from the distance but the best chance came to Valletta as Nafti freed Fenech who took a touch before hitting a drive that was beaten away by Haber. The loose ball dropped to Elford-Alliyu but his rising effort was high.
Valletta roared. They had another opportunity to snatch a late winner as Barry’s cross from the right sailed towards Nafti who swivelled before heading the ball goalwards but Haber saved the day for the Stripes with another crucial save.
VALLETTA – P. Marino, R. Camilleri, H. Barry, J. Caruana (L. Elford), I. Azzopardi, A. Nafti, L. Cremona (S. Bajada), L. Dimech (V. Savicevic), R. Briffa, S. Borg, R. Fenech.
BIRKIRKARA – J. Haber, E. Herrera (A. Borg), N. Vukanac, M. Mazzetti (K. Zammit), S. Shodija, P. Fenech, Z. Muscat, R. Muscat (N. Maachi), R. Camenzuli, E. Agius.
Date: 08.02.15 Time: 16:00 Venue: National Stadium
Scorers: 77′ N. Vukanac (B), 90′ R. Briffa (V)
Yellow Cards: S. Borg, R. Briffa (V)
Man of Match: M. Mazzetti (B)
Referee: E. Azzopardi