UEFA Europa League HSK Zrinjski 1 Valletta 1
Valletta’s Europa League campaign started on a bright note after Mario Fontanella’s stoppage-time leveller earned the Citizens a valuable 1-1 draw against Zrinjski in the first leg of the second qualifying at the Stadion pod Bijelim Brijegom, in Bosnia and Herzegovina.
After their heart-breaking exit from the Champions League at the hands of Albania’s Kukesi, Danilo Doncic’s clan were striving for a better performance this time around and the Serb coach will be surely satisfied with what his team showed on the field.
Valletta exchanged the run of play with their opponents for the whole 90 minutes and in fact, they registered five attempts on target compared to the Zrinjski’s six, underlining the Citizen’s offensive efficiency.
Doncic deployed his team in a 4-3-3 formation with Matteo Piciollo, Kyrian Nwoko and Fontanella forming the attacking trio – a luxury of attacking selections which will definitely boost Valletta’s chances of progressing into the next round.
The hosts were looking for an early breakthrough to take the reins of the match in their hands.
Inside two minutes, Zrinskji went close to find the net when Pero Stojkic hit a first-timer which Henry Bonello deflected into a corner.
However, as the first half wore on, Valletta were starting to impose their game with Piciollo and Fontanella posing awkward questions to their markers from both flanks.
Zrinjski’s reply was a longrange shot from Milos Filipovic which sailed over the bar.
Moments later, Valletta almost drew first blood when Nwoko headed a Ibrahim Saleh’s corner with authority just to be denied by inches.On the brink of halftime, Bonello preserved the clean sheet when he managed to save an Amer Bekic’s header from inside the penalty area.
The Bosnian champions put their feet on the pedal as the second half started in the same way of the first, with the hosts pushing for a goal, which eventually they found on 55 minutes.
Filipovic drew Valletta’s defensive line towards him before sliding the ball towards Nemanja Bilbija and the latter struck the ball past the Maltese custodian to put his team ahead.
Buoyed by the opening goal, Zrijnski forced Valletta to defend and they went close to double their lead through Ognjen Todorovic, but he failed to hit the target. Valletta, however, were not done yet and Piciollo forced Zrijnski’s goalkeeper into a fantastic save with a sublime shot from long-distance.
Moments later, Santiago Malano and Bogdan Gavrila, who joined the club this summer, attempted their lucks from outside the area but their efforts were in vain.
Twenty minutes from time, Zrinjski were inches away from wrapping up the win and possibly the qualification when Bekic lobbed the ball over Bonello but the ball rolled away from goal to the relief of the Valletta clan.
With Zrinjski controlling proceedings in the closing stages of the game, they were looking to head into the second leg with a slender advantage before Valletta surprised them with the equalizer.
Piciollo, undoubtedly one of Valletta’s best performers, dribbled past two markers releasing Joseph Zerafa on the left-hand side. The Malta international sent an inviting ball inside the eighteen and with a great sense of anticipation, Fontanella capitalized on the cross to the celebrations of the entire team and staff.
Source – Times of Malta, Photo credits: Bljesak.info
VALLETTA: H.Bonello; J. Zerafa; R. Camilleri; S. Borg (46 J. Gill); R. Saleh; M. Alba (86 J. Borg); S. Malano; R. Muscat; M. Fontanella; K. Nwoko (65 B. Gavrila); M. Piciollo.
ZRINJSKI: I.Brkic (45 A. Soldo); M. Galic; S. Jakovljevic; H. Barisic; P. Stojkic; S. Pezer; F. Cirjak; M. Filipovic (64 M. Bencun); N. Bibilja; O. Todorovic; A. Bekic (70 M. Acimovic).
Scorers: 55′ N. Bilbija (Z), 90′ M. Fontanella (V)
Referee: Neil Doyle (Ireland)