Matchday 17: Valletta 3 Balzan 1
Mario Fontanella was the darling of the Valletta fans on Saturday as the Italian striker grabbed a hat-trick to help the Malta champions see off a battling Balzan side, who ended the match with nine men.
It was a hard-fought victory for Valletta, who despite enjoying much of the initiative they struggled to convert their scoring chances into goals.
In fact, after taking the lead through a Fontanella penalty, Valletta failed to press on their dominance as they missed a serious of chances an that came back to haunt them with Balzan levelling at the stroke of half-time.
After the break, Valletta continued to create chances without converting them until nine minutes from time, when Fontanella won and converted a second penalty with Balzan having goalkeeper Kristjan Naumovski and Uros Ljubomirac red-carded.
With two more men on the pitch, Valletta went on to seal their win with a third goal from Fontanella that lifted them momentarily top of the standings, one point ahead of Floriana, who faced Gżira United in the day’s second match.
Santiago Malano made his first start for Valletta since recovering from a serious knee injury as the Argentine was preferred to Triston Caruana who was not included in the 18-man squad.
Balzan, on their part, made four changes to the team that drew against Birkirkara last Monday as Steve Pisani, Samir Arab, Paul Fenech and Alfred Effiong started ahead of Dale Camilleri, Steve Bezzina, Ricardo Correa and Luke Montebello.
Valletta bossed the proceedings early on with Bojan Kaljevic coming close after nine minutes when hitting a low drive that was well saved by Naumovski.
At the other end Fenech’s shot from the distance flashed wide.
Kaljevic should have given Valletta the lead on 17 minutes when the Montenegrin found himself in ample space following a Nicholas Pulis corner-kick but he incredibly fired wide from routine distance.
Three minutes later, Arthur Faria sped through the City defence and picked Effiong who was denied by Bonello.
The stalemate was finally broken on 31 minutes. Valletta were awarded a free-kick on the edge of the area and Kaljevic’s shot was deflected by the Balzan wall into the path of Steve Borg who was upended by the onrushing Naumovski.
From the ensuing penalty, Fontanella sent the Macedonian goalkeeper the wrong way to put Valletta ahead.
It looked as though Valletta were set to head for half-time in front but Balzan had other plans as in the last action of the first half, Ivan Bozovic connected to Pisani’s corner kick to head the ball into the far corner, via the upright.
On the restart, Valletta tried to quickly regain the advantage and it had to be a fine save from Naumovski to deny Kaljevic on 51 minutes.
On 62 minutes, Valletta came close to a second goal when Miguel Alba, who had replaced Malano, picked Fontanella at the far post but the Italian headed just wide.
The Italian striker had an even better chance four minutes later when in a quick break Kaljevic played in Fontanella but he incredibly fired wide in front of a gaping goal.
However, the Valletta striker made amends on 81 minutes when he sped through on goal and was upended by Naumovksi with the referee pointing to the spot.
The decision irked the Balzan players with Ljubomirac charging into the official who immediately brandished the red card against the Serbian while goalkeeper Naumovski also picked up his second booking of the day.
From the spot Fontanella sent the incoming Sean Mintoff the wrong way to put Valletta back in front.
Despite being with two men down, Balzan still had one final chance on 89 minutes when Adenkoya let fly a firm volley that just scraped the upright.
However, any hope of a comeback where extinguished in stoppage time when Jhony Barrios sent a low cross towards Fontanella to stab home and seal Valletta’s victory.
VALLETTA: H. Bonello, S. Borg, R. Camilleri, B. Kaljevic, M. Piciollo (J. Moises Barrios), N. Pulis, S. Dimech, S. Malano (M. Alba), J. Borg, E. Pena Beltre, M. Fontanella (J. Zerafa)
BALZAN: K. Naumovski, N. Sljivic, S. Pisani, M. Johnson, P. Fenech, A. Effiong, U. Ljubomirac, I. Bozovic, S. Dimic (S. Mintoff), A. Faria (S. Adekoya), S. Arab.
Yellow Cards: E. Pena Beltre (V), K. Naumovski, S. Pisani, M. Johnson (B)
Red Cards: U. Ljubomirac, K. Naumovski (B)
Scorers: 31′ (p), 81′ (p), 90′ M. Fontanella (V), 45′ Bozovic (B)
BOV Player of the Match: M. Fontanella (V)
Referee: P. Farrugia