FA Trophy: Valletta 0 Birkirkara 1
Birkirkara are through to the final of the FA Trophy.
Facing rivals Valletta in the first semi-final, the Stripes stayed in contention to win the second most prestigious honour thanks to captain Paul Fenech who struck the winner in the second half of extra-time.
Fenech’s participation had been in doubt as the Malta midfielder had fallen out of favour at Birkirkara due to a contractual dispute but the two sides resolved their issues on Thursday.
It proved to be an inspired move as Fenech came off the bench to decide this tight contest to send the Stripes into the final where they will meet the winner of the second semi-final between Hibernians and Qormi.
Birkirkara were slightly the better side in a generally low-key first half that produced few scoring chances.
Ryan Camenzuli, the Birkirkara winger, was wide with a diagonal shot.
Valletta improved as the first half progress but they hardly threatened the Birkirkara defence.
Nicky Vella, back in Valletta’s goal in place of the suspended Pietro Marino, blocked an effort from Edward Herrera who, moments later, got on the end of Zach Muscat’s cross from the right but his central header was saved by the City goalkeeper.
Midway into the first half, Valletta’s Hamza Barry twisted his way into the box from the right, swapping passes with Nafti, but his drive was blocked.
The game remained balanced but creative football was at a premium.
A mistake in the Birkirkara box created an opening for Valletta as Shaun Bajada pounced before sending cross that came off Joseph Zerafa.
Just before the end of the first half, Nafti sent in a dangerous cross from a free-kick but Haber was alert.
There was no change in the pattern of the game after the change of ends as both teams continued to struggle to create chances.
Camenzuli had a good chance as he steered clear of the City defenders but his shot was pushed away by Vella.
The two coaches made an attacking change as Elfordf Alliyu came on for Cremona and Brazilian striker Liliu replaced Bissi.
An error by Camilleri had Valletta on the backfoot as Ryan Scicluna robbed the dithering City defender of the ball before crossing towards the far post. The ball landed at the feet of Camenzuli but the latter miscued his cross.
Camilleri was caught out again, this time losing possession to Herrera in the inside-right channel but the Birkirkara winger’s strike was parried away by Vella.
Birkirkara upped the pressure. Ledesma’s corner, from the right, caused panic in the City box as the ball sailed above Vella and towards Liliu but the latter’s close-range effort was blocked off Hillary Ikenna.
With Valletta looking vulnerable at the back, the Stripes fashioned another chance through Zach Muscat who was unguarded when the ball reached him at the far post but his cross found no takers.
Liliu headed over from Rowen Muscat’s cross but Valletta refused to buckle.
Fenech twisted this way and that to create space for a shot but his effort was pushed away by Haber.
At long last, the game opened up with the fans also finding their voice. Bajada swapped passes with Ikenna but the former curled his shot wide.
Elford-Alliyu wasted a good opportunity, taking a heavy touch after being put clear by Nafti.
There was also a scare for Valletta as, from Ledesma’s left-wing corner, Zach Muscat’s powerful header sailed wide.
Camilleri was having a torrid game, shooting straight at Liliu who swooped on the loose ball but his shot was off target. The Malta defender made amends himself in stoppage time as he repelled Liliu’s shot after the latter had been set up by Ledesma.
The game went into extra-time. After three minutes, Elford-Alliyu shrugged off Mauricio Mazzetti with the ball rolling invitingly to Nafti whose grounder brought a fine save from Haber.
At the other end, Ledesma was first to a loose ball after a City clearance was blocked but the Brazilian’s shot was warded off by Luke Dimech.
The rate of scoring chances increased. Elford-Alliyu made headway on the right before squaring the ball to Barry who spooned his shot over the bar. Haber then tipped away Bajada’s cross, from a corner and Mazzetti cleared Nafti’s cross.
Birkirkara scored what proved to be the winner on 110 minutes.
The danger came from the right as Zach Muscat’s cross rolled into the six-yard box and Fenech was on hand to tuck the ball home despite Dimech’s desperate attempt to block.
The Stripes faithful were in seventh heaven.
VALLETTA – N. Vella, I. Hillary (D. Leeflang), R. Camilleri, A. Nafti, R. Briffa, R. Fenech, S. Bajada (C. Caruana), I. Azzopardi, H. Barry, L. Dimech, L. Cremona (L. Elford)
BIRKIRKARA: J. Haber, M. Bissi Da Silva (E. Costa Morais), N. Vukanac, M. Mazzetti, J. Zerafa (N. Maachi), Z. Muscat, R. Ledesma, E. Herrea, R. Camenzuli, R. Muscat, R. Scicluna (P. Fenech).
Scorers: 110′ P. fenech
Yellow Cards: R. Scicluna, R. Ledesma, M. Mazzetti (B), R. Fenech, A. Nafti, I. Hillary, L. Dimech (V)
Referee: Fyodor Zammit