Day 3: Valletta 2 Birkirkara 1
Valletta came from a goal down to defeat rivals Birkirkara in the first big clash of the new season.
There was little between the two teams in a hard-fought clash with Birkirkara starting well and Valletta growing into the game as he minutes ticked away.
The game looked set to end in a 1-1 draw but the introduction of Njongo Priso late in the second half changed the course of the game as the Cameroonian scored a fine individual goal in the dying stages to give Valletta a much-cherished win over their bitter rivals who have now dropped four points in their last two league games.
Paul Zammit was presented with a memento by the Birkirkara fans before kick-off as this was his first match against his former team since taking charge of rivals Valletta this summer.
The City coach sprung a surprise as he opted for 3-4-3 with Roderick Briffa operating behind the front duo of Jhonnattann and Federico Falcone.
Birkirkara coach Giovanni Tedesco oped for 4-1-3-2 with Fabrizio Miccolo and the returning Liliu in attack.
The Stripes went close on three minutes when Miccoli’s cross soared into the six-yard box but Nikola Vukanac’s header flew high.
Tedesco’s team made the better start.
On 11 minutes, Claudio Pani, the Valletta midfielder, hit wide from the distance.
Miccoli, teed up by Edmond Agius, cut inside Romeu Romao but his rising shot was off target.
Birkirkara remained on top. They created another chance when Miccoli’s cross from the left was met by Liliu but his header was wide.
The erstwhile subdued Citizens made a chance of their own when Jhonnattann exchanged passes with Briffa before surging into the box but the Brazilian was held off by the Birkirkara defenders.
Jhonnattann was first to the loose ball but his rising effort failed to unsettle Haber.
At the other end, Henry Bonello, the Valletta goalkeeper, blocked Liliu’s shot after the latter had won a duel with Jonathan Caruana.
The game came to life.
Valletta’s right-back Romeu Romao swept past Ryan Camenzuli before hitting a cross that was picked up by Falcone but his grounder was stopped by Haber.
Bonello fisted away Miccoli’s corner but Birkirkara struck six minutes from half-time.
Having won a free-kick after being brought down by Pani, Miccoli played the ball short to Liliu whose incursion into the box went unchecked by the white-shirted players. Liliu produced an angled drive that appeared to come off Ryan Camilleri whose deflection wrong-footed Bonello, to the evident joy of the Birkirkara fans.
Two minutes later, Valletta threatened to equalise but Cruz Gill’s firm drive from inside the box was blocked by Muscat after Azzopardi had nodded Romao’s cross into the Argentine’s path.
Another fine City move saw Jhonnattann exchange passes with Azzopardi whose cross was again met by the Brazilian but his flick was saved by Haber.
There was nothing Haber could do to stop Valletta from equalising on the brink of half-time.
Ghana’s Albert Bruce played a key role as his excellent ball from midfield sailed above the Birkirkara defenders and towards the advancing Falcone who stroked past Haber.
As in the opening half, Birkirkara sought to press forward when the second period got underway.
Miccoli dragged his shot over the bar after getting on the end of Camenzuli’s low cross. Twenty minutes into the second half, Zammit made his first substitution, throwing on Llywelyn Cremona for Briffa.
Tedesco responded by introducing Spanish forward Juan Quero Barraso for Agius while Zach Muscat replaced the hobbling Vukanac.
The second half became a battle of attrition as tiredness appeared to catch up with the two teams.
With 21 minutes remaining, Falcone drifted infield from the left but his long-range drive was off target.
The Whites threatened five minutes from time when Caruana dashed into the box to make contact with Jhonnattann’s corner but his sliced header was wide.
Barely two minutes hardly passed when Valletta took the lead thanks to Priso who raced past a defender before hitting past Haber from a tight angle.
Birkirkara looked stunned but created a chance only for Plut to head over from Mazzetti’s cross.
In stoppage time, Barraso was first to Mazzetti’s assist but Bonello was alert to the danger.
Rowen Muscat, the Birkirkara midfielder, was named BOV player of the match.
VALLETTA – H. Bonello, R. Briffa (L. Cremona) , J. Caruana, C. Pani, J. Cruz Gill, I. Azzopardi, R. Romao (N. Priso(), A. Bruce, R. Camilleri, F. Falcone, J. Benites (J.P. Mifsud Triganza).
BIRKIRKARA. – J. Haber, E. Herrera, N. Vukanac (Z. Muscat), M. Mazzetti, J. Zerafa, R. Muscat, E. Agius (J. Quero Barraso), P. Fenech, E. Costa Morais (V. Plut), F. Miccoli, R. Camenzuli.
Scorers: 39 E. Costa Morais (B) 44 F. Falcone, 86 N. Priso (V).
Yellow Cards: J. Zerafa, P. Fenech, C. Pani, A. Bruce
Man of Match: R. Muscat (B)
Referee: Andre Arciola