Day 20 Valletta 3 Naxxar L 0
The one-all stalemate between Birkirkara and Hibernians on Saturday was greeted with a certain dose of enthusiasm in the Valletta clan as the result handed them a slight boost as their champion-ship title chances are concerned and the possibility of making the runners-up spot theirs ahead of the final round.
Yesterday, the experienced City team showed nerves of steel to blast past the challenge of Naxxar and it was only a quick-fire double late in the game by the ever-improving Lateef Elford-Alliyu, who came in as a substitute, that helped them overcome Naxxar Lions’ stiff resistance, particularly in defence.
The Lilywhites did precious little to justify their determination to win in an insipid first half and when Naxxar were starting to ask questions of Valletta’s defence soon after the break.
But Naxxar midfielder Albert Bruce was then expelled midway through the second half, leaving his team-mates with the arduous task of trying to stop Valletta from adding to their erstwhile one-goal lead with 10 men. In the end, the champions put their opponents in their place thanks to Elford-Alliyu’s scoring prowess.
Valletta’s starting XI showed a few changes from the FA Trophy win over Melita last week.
Dutch striker Djamel Leeflang, who making his debut, started ahead of Luke Montebello while Jonathan Caruana replaced Ryan Fenech, suspended. Vladimir Savicevic, another January signing, was named among the substitutes but he made a cameo appearance late in the game.
Caruana stationed himself in front of a four-man defence with Leeflang deployed at the tip of Valletta’s 4-1-2-3 formation with Hamza Barry and Abdelkarim Nafti pushing from the wings.
Jesmond Zerafa’s resources at Naxxar were hampered by the suspension of Pablo Doffo and Jorge and the injury to striker Gilmar.
David Fenech and Victor Bellia filled the void left by the midfield duo as former Valletta striker Demba Toure deputised for Brazilian forward Gilmar.
It was back to basics for the Lions as Zerafa opted for a straightforward 4-4-2 with Toure and Terence Vella up front.
Three minutes into the game, Vella made good progress on the right wing and pulled it back for Daren Falzon but his angled drive flashed across the face of City’s goal.
Valletta were dominating possession but the spirited Lions refused to yield an inch. Past the quarter of an hour mark, Llywelyn Cremona’s long-ranger flew wide.
Valletta were toiling to breach Naxxar’s defensive lines and Barry came up with a solution of his own on 22 minutes.
After a superbly-executed one-two with Nafti, he ran into space and in front of Julian Azzopardi but shot straight at the Naxxar goalkeeper.
In attack, Naxxar were doing very little but tried to catch the Valletta defence off guard with long balls on Toure.
On the half hour mark, Bellia sliced open the City defence with a perfect ball from almost the halfway line but Toure headed just over the bar.
However, the Lions knocked off early for half-time and Valletta punished them. A superb cross from Nafti fell between Ibok Edet and Andrew Scicluna, allowing Leeflang to chest the ball down and steer his shot into the top corner of the net.
Despite the setback, Naxxar never relented and they enjoyed a better start to the second half.
It took a set-piece though to cause Valletta problems when Falzon’s whipping free-kick was somehow kept out by goalkeeper Nicky Vella.
At this point, coach Zammit withdrew Ian Azzopardi and brought on Shaun Bajada who took up a midfield role on the left flank.
Caruana retreated to the back four, Ryan Camilleri switched to the left flank and Valletta reverted to a 4-3-3 configuration.
Naxxar had a penalty shout turned down when Luke Dimech seemed to have handled the ball as he tried to block Bellia’s effort, before Zammit effected his second substitution, throwing in Elford-Alliyu instead of Leeflang.
With 19 minutes to go Bruce, a lively figure in Naxxar’s midfield, marred his performance when he was red-carded after collecting a second booking following an unnecessary challenge in the centre of the pitch. And Valletta inflicted more damage on Naxxar eight minutes from time when they doubled their lead.
Briffa spotted Elford-Alliyu lurking inside the Naxxar box and duly served him with a through pass. The Englishman, also profiting from a slip by Ibok, advanced unchallenged before firing low past Azzopardi.
A few minutes later, the unmarked Elford-Alliyu hammered again past Azzopardi after another Briffa ball caught the chaotic Naxxar defence at sixes and sevens.
VALLETTA – N. Vella, R. Camilleri, S. Borg, H. Barry (V. Savicevic), J. Caruana, I. Azzopardi (S. Bajada), A. Nafti, L. Cremona, L. Dimech, R. Briffa, D. Leeflang (L. Elford)
NAXXAR L. – J. Azzopardi, A. Scicluna, I. Edet, V. Bellia, T. Vella, M. Del Negro (D. Bonnici), D. Falzon (J. Debono), D. Fenech, A. Buhagiar, D. Toure, A. Bruce.
Date: 25.01.15 Time: 14:00 Venue: Victor Tedesco Stadium
Scorers: 46′ D. Leeflang, 83′ 86′ L. Elford
Yellow Cards: A. Bruce (N), S. Borg (V)
Red Card: A. Bruce (N)
Man of Match: Abdelkarim Nafti (v)
Referee: P. Farrugia