Day 26 Valletta 2 Gzira 1
Valletta were crowned Premier League champions for the 24th time in the history as they collected the three points they needed from the clash with Gżira United while Balzan, with whom they shared the top spot before the final round of fixtures, suffered a surprise 1-0 defeat to Hibernians.
Before the start of the season, both Valletta fans and club officials alike hoped to celebrate the city’s crowning as European Capital of Culture –Valletta 2018 with the Premier League crown.
However things seemed not to be going in the right direction as the team stuttered at times. Since the appointment of Danilo Doncic as the new coach in December, replacing Zoran Popovic whose contract was terminated by mutual consent, Valletta maintained an unbeaten record until the end of the season and surely that consistent run was decisive in this latest triumph.
Yesterday, Valletta showed great determination right from the start. They took an early lead and stayed in control, doubling the score midway through the second half.
Although Gżira pulled a goal back late on there was never any doubt on who would take all three points and City’s celebrations reached a peak when Ryan Camilleri lifted the coveted trophy after the final whistle.
Following last week’s draw with Floriana, Doncic made one change as Joseph Zerafa replaced Jean Borg. On the other hand, Gżira, after securing a return to European football after 45 years by finishing third,
were only hoping to give their opponents a hard time.
Coach Darren Abdilla was without three key players as Amadou Samb was recovering from injury while Sacha Borg and Ndubisi Okoye had to serve a one-match ban.
Kris Thackray, Antonio Macedo Neto, Nikolai Muscat, Juan Corbalan and Karl Pulo were drafted in the starting line-up while Edison Bilbao Zarate and Prince Mambouana had to settle with a place on the bench.
Valletta could not have hoped for a better start as they drew first blood on eight minutes.
Kryian Nwoko advanced on the right before serving Raed Ibrahim Saleh who tried to avoid Roderick Briffa’s marking. The ball reached Matteo Piciollo who slotted past Anthony Curmi.
The Italian striker could have grabbed a second on 29 minutes. Saleh advanced on the right and entered the penalty area, before serving Piciollo who, however failed to connect from an ideal position.
Four minutes later, Miguel Angel Alba tested Curmi with a fine freekick from the left but the Gzira custodian
turned the ball into a corner.
Five minutes in the second half, Valletta went close to doubling the score when Piciollo’s effort from the left was blocked by a defender withthe ball reaching Alba who rounded a defender before hitting low but the ball scraped past the post.
News of Clayton Failla’s goal at the Hibernians Stadium reached the Valletta supporters sending them into ruptures as they knew that the 24th title was closer than ever.
Buoyed by this news, the Citizens took little time to double the score on the 64th minute.
Santiago Malano rounded Gatt Baldacchino and served Saleh who controlled the ball before hitting past Curmi.
At the other end, Haruna Garba tested Henry Bonello with a shot from the left on the 70th minute but the Valletta goalkeeper saved without particular difficulty.
However Gżira managed to reduce the gap nine minutes from time. Juan Corbalan was brought down inside the area by Ryan Camilleri. Referee Clayton Pisani ordered a penalty and Andrew Cohen duly converted.
But that came too little too late to spoil Valletta’s title party which kickstarted at the final whistle.
VALLETTA – H. Bonello, S. Borg, R. Camilleri (A. Prosa), S. Malano (J. Borg), M. Piciollo, K. Nwoko, E. Pena Beltre, J. Zerafa, R. Saleh, R. Muscat. M. Alba (D. Dos SAntos).
GZIRA – A. Curmi, R. Briffa (C. Sammut), A. Machedo Neto (L. Brincat), K. Thackary (P. Mambouna), C. Gatt Baldacchino, Z. Scerri, N. Muscat, H. Garba, A. Cohen, J. Corbolan, K. Pulo.
Yellow Cards: S. Borg (V), M. Vella, J. Cabral (F)
Scorers: M. Piciollo, R. Saleh (V),
Man of Match: M. Piciollo (V)
Referee: C. Pisani