Day 32: Valletta 1 Balzan 0
Derided for much of the season and demoted to the bench for a run of games before regaining his first-team spot for last week’s 2-1 victory over Birkirkara, Valletta goalkeeper Nicky Vella stole the limelight for the right reasons.
The Citizens were 1-0 up against Balzan when, with 11 minutes remaining, Vella conceded what looked like a needless penalty after he hauled down Ice Cream Guobadia but the shot-stopper redeemed himself with an excellent save to keep out Elkin Serrano’s spot-kick and reacted instinctively to ward off Edison Zarate’s follow-on effort.
This episode was the turning point of a generally slow-burning encounter which livened up in the second half after Lateef Elford-Alliyu had risen from the bench to score a fortuitous winner for the toothless Valletta who did just enough to see off the challenge of Balzan and reinforce their grip on second place.
Balzan’s hopes of extending a six-match winning streak that sealed their historic qualification for next season’s Europa League, had been compromised by injuries to three of their firstchoice forwards – Bojan Kaljevic, Gianmarco Piccioni and Oscar Guerrero. However, Oliver Spiteri’s troops still deserve credit for another resilient showing.
Not for the first time this season, City coach Ivan Zammit sprang a surprise by deploying Steve Borg, a defender, on the right of midfield with Ryan Camilleri filling the right-back role.
Missing his potent strikers, Spiteri modified his tactical strategy to 4-1-4-1 with Guobadia protecting the backline and Ryan Darmanin as lone forward.
Valletta were the more enterprising side in the initial exchanges but struggled to make inroads in attack.
It was not before the 16th minute that the Citizens threatened to break the stalemate as Barry weaved his way into the box but his angled grounder rolled against the base of the far post.
Valletta began to assert their superiority. Roderick Briffa drove towards the byline on the left before crossing for Barry but the Gambian was crowded out by the Balzan defenders after taking a touch too many.
The erstwhile prudent Balzan produced a good move with Steve Bezzina speeding forward on the left before releasing Zarate who was dispossessed.
On 26 minutes, Spiteri was forced into his first change as Darmanin looked to have picked up an injury. He was replaced by Jean Pierre Mifsud Triganza.
Three minutes past the halfhour, Balzan goalkeeper Christian Cassar fisted away Nafti’s crossshot from a free-kick. At the other end, Dylan Grima blasted high and wide after Valletta had failed to deal with Justin Grioli’s corner.
Cassar pulled off another timely intervention to palm away another menacing cross-shot from Nafti, this time from a corner, but the game remained a slow-paced affair.
Valletta should have scored when Barry’s cross from the right found Nafti unmarked at the far post but the Tunisian’s header drew a point-blank save from Cassar.
After a tepid start to the second half, Mifsud Triganza raced through the City defence to latch on to Guobadia’s pass from the back but the Balzan striker was flagged offside, to the dismay of coach Spiteri.
Zammit brought on Elford-Alliyu for Camilleri as Borg reverted to right-back. Twelve minutes into the second half, Balzan had a glorious opportunity to nose ahead. Zarate aimed a dangerous cross from the left but Luke Dimech slid in to flick the ball away from Grima. The loose ball rolled towards Lydon Micallef but his central effort was stopped in two attempts by Vella.
Strangely, Valletta were looking somewhat unsteady at the back whenever Balzan pressed forward. Four minutes past the hour, Cassar blocked Nafti’s free-kick but two minutes later, Valletta hit the target.
Fastening on to Briffa’s lofted pass into the box, Barry’s diagonal strike again came off the far post but this time the ball glanced off Elford-Alliyu and rolled into the net.
The Whites were now producing the better stuff. Ian Azzopardi, cutting in from the left, squared to Briffa but the latter’s drive was repelled by the alert Bezzina. Balzan issued a reminder of their counter-attacking ability as Grima was narrowly wide after bursting clear on the right but, 11 minutes from time, the Reds had a golden chance to equalise but Vella came to the fore to deny Serrano, from the spot, and Zarate.
Balzan refused to give in. Serrano, now playing up front as Spiteri went for broke, picked out Grima at the far post but the former City midfielder miscued his effort.
There was also a chance for man-of-the-match Barry when his central shot was fumbled by Cassar with the ball going wide for a corner.
VALLETTA – N. Vella, J. Caruana, R. Camilleri (L. Elford Alliyu), A. Nafti, R. Briffa, S. Borg, R. Fenech (L. Cremona), S. Bajada (I. Hillary), I. Azzopardi, H. Barry, L. Dimech.
BALZAN: C. Cassar, E. Bilbao Zarate, D. Grima, E. Serrano Valero, J. Grioli, S. Bezzina, T. Agius (S. Cipriott), I. Guobadia, C. Brincat, R. Darmanin (J.P. Mifsud Triganza), L. Micallef (M. Spiteri).
Scorers: L. Elford Alliyu
Yellow Cards: C. Bricat, E. Zarate, J. Grioli (B) L. Cremona (V)
Man of Match: H. Barry (V)
Referee: Philip Farrugia