Day 32 Valletta 2 Birkirkara 0
Pitched in a direct confrontation with Birkirkara, the defending champions, Valletta conjured up a tenacious performance to overcome their rivals who only needed a draw to retain the title.
In a repeat of the 1998 title clash, Valletta showed nerves of steel to keep Birkirkara at bay.
Leading through Shaun Bajada’s superb free-kick, Valletta held their composure to protect their lead before applying the killer touch with a stoppage-time goal from substitute Roderick Briffa, sparking an invasion by their fans as referee Chris Lautier blew the final whistle.
As more City fans ran on the pitch, the Birkirkara fans hurled seats and some tried to force an iron gate open but the tension subsided when the police moved in to deter the Stripes supporters.
The atmosphere was in full swing when the two teams walked on to the pitch for kick-off with the Birkirkara fans unfurling a giant flag that covered their entire section.
Paus, the Valletta coach, pulled off a surprise as he handed a starting role to young forward Luke Montebello, formerly of Birkirkara, at the expense of experienced midfielder Roderick Briffa who had to settle for a place on the bench.
Birkirkara’s formation showed only one change from the the 4-1 victory over Hibernians as captain Gareth Sciberras was preferred to Ryan Scicluna.
The game was off to a storming start as Valletta took the lead inside the opening two minutes. Veering infield from the right, Alan Da Siva Souza was fouled Paul Fenech outside the box. The distance to Justin Haber’s goal was considerable but Shaun Bajada unleashed a stunning free-kick that gave Justin Haber, the Birkirkara goalkeeoer, no chance.
The early goal rattled Birkirkara but they hit back.
Close to the eighth minute, they protested for a penalty after Steve Borg challenged Fenech but Lautier saw nothing wrong and cautioned the Birkirkara midfielder for dissent.
From the resultant corner, taken by Jhonnattann, the ball flew towards the far post where Zach Muscat sent his header towards goal only for Nukri Revishvili to tip the ball over the bar.
Valletta were quick to break on the counter. Denni, capitalising on the acres of space behind Herrera, tried to unbalance Sciberras but the Birkirkara captain blocked his effort.
On another occasion, Da Silva Souza robbed the dithering Bissi of the ball but his angled grounder was stopped by Haber.
The game remained exciting. Sciberras ran towards the by-line but his cross-cum-shot was cut out by Revishvili.
Lautier turned down another penalty claim from Birkirkara after Haruna’s drive from the edge of the box came off a defender.
Haber kept Birkirkara in the game on 25 minutes as the Malta goalkeeper pushed away Da Silva’s first-timer after the Brazilian had been picked out by Abdelkarim Nafti following another well-crafted Valletta attack.
A shot by Denni was deflected into the grateful hands of Haber but, on 27 minutes, Valletta squandered an inviting chance to double their lead.
Nafti traded passes with Denni before bursting forward on the left. His flighted cross flew towards Montebello who headed over with the goal at his mercy.
There was another scare for the champions when Da Silva’s cross was met by Montebello but his header was deflected away for a corner.
Reprieved, Birkirkara almost equalised but Jhonnattann’s drive was blocked by Borg.
Three minutes past the half-hour, Herrera pressed forwared on the right but his cross was headed away by Luke Dimech. Haruna, first to the clearance, passed the ball to Fenech who had darted unimpeded into the box but his swerving shot was high.
Birkirkara were now pouring forward with renewed vigour. They had a great opportunity to equalise when Fenech, now drifting to the right, chipped an excellent pass to Jhonnattann but the Brazilian mishit the ball as he attempted an acrobatic volley before the alert Borg cleared the danger.
The first chance of the second half fell to Valletta as Dimech’s header from Borg’s throw-in was saved by Haber.
The game became somewhat scrappy in the second half with Birkirkara struggling to break down Valletta;’s defence.
A Temile corner wreaked havoc in the City box as Revisvhili dropped the ball before the defenders cleared away for a corner.
Paus responded by throwing on Briffa for Denni.
Revishvili did well to push away Herrera’s cross as the Stripes, now playing with three forwards and Haruna behind, committed more men forward.
Birkirkara’s optimism rose when Haruna’s through-ball reached Frank Temile, on as a substitute, but the Nigerian’s grounder was tamed by Revishviliu. The Georgian goalkeeper produced an even better save to stop Temile’s point-blank effort after Herrera’s curling cross from the right had eluded a sea of Valletta defenders.
Lateef Elford-Alliyu might have sealed it for Valletta when he outmuscled Muscat but his chipped effort was warded off by Haber, The game continued to ebb and flow, Temile hitting just wide after pouncing on Dimech’s half-clearance.
Valletta spurned a glorious chance to kill the game Nafti blasting over after his initial shot was snuffed out by Temile.
There was to be no reprieve for Birkirkara as in their next attack Valletta struck. Elford-Alliyu veered infield from the right before passing to Da Silva Souza who in turn teed up by Briffa. The former Birkirkara midfielder rifled the ball into the net, sparking wild celebrations among the Valletta fans, some of whom invaded the pitch as Lautier blew the final whistle.
VALLETTA – N. Revishvili, S. Borg, J. Caruana, S. Bajada, L. Montebello (L. Elford), R. Fenech (E. Agius), A. Da Silva Souza , I Maisuradze, A. Nafti, D. Dos Santos, L. Dimech
BIRKIRKARA – J. Haber, Z. Muscat, N. Vukanac, M. Bissi (F. Temile), J. Zerafa, P. Fenech, G. Sciberras, R. Muscat (R. Seara), E. Herrera, S. Haruna Shodiya, J. Benites.
Date: 26.04.14 Time: 17:00 Venue: National Stadium
Scorers: 2′ S. Bajad, 94′ R. Briffa
Yellow Cards: P. Fenech (B), S. Borg, A. Nafti, N. Revishvili (V)
Man of Match: Alan Da Silva Souza (V)
Referee: Chris Lautier