Matchday 12: Valletta 1 Hibernians 1
A 1-1 stalemate provided little cheer for either Valletta or Hibernians as the two title hopefuls lost further ground to the Premier League pacesetters.
In fact, the final scoreline favoured leaders Floriana who are now six points clear of Valletta with the Paolites now a further point back.
The match could have gone either way even though Hibernians’ second half charge almost earned them all spoils but they saw their aspirations thwarted by Valletta goalkeeper Henry Bonello who produced two excellent saves at the death to avoid further damage to his team.
Hibs coach Stefano Sanderra opted for three-man defence with Joseph Mbong and Artiles Izquier on the flanks. There was again no place for Timothy Tabone Desira as Bjorn Kristensen got the nod in a three-man midfield alongside Dunstan Vella and Jake Grech.
Valletta were deployed in a 4-3-1-2 formation, with Kyrian Nwoko and Mario Fontanella taking up the two attacking roles and Matteo Piciollo deployed behind them. Irakli Dzaria was back in the starting formation and handed probing duties in front of the defence.
The Citizens looked the more aggressive side in the opening exchanges. They were forcing a series of flag-kicks which however failed to yield anything tangible.
Hibs weathered the early storm and were soon teasing their opponents with their own slick moves after 27 minutes when Jake Grech release Imanol Iriberri but the Argentine’s drive was blocked by Henry Bonello.
Darren Abdilla’s plan was to try to unmask Hibs’ struggles to keep their shape by throwing in two strikers who can hold up the ball and dribble and another roaming forward between the lines.
So, inevitably, they were all involved in the excellent build-up which led to their opener.
Nwoko picked up the ball on the half-way line, exchanged it with Piciollo who sent the ball over Hibernians’ shaky backline with a clever kick that was met by Fontanella. And, with no white shirts closing him down, the Italian striker carried the ball to the edge of the box before drilling a shot past Marko Jovicic.
It was the tonic the Lilywhites needed and coming, as it did a few minutes from the interval, it gave them a big boost.
Yet, Hibs were very much in with a chance of getting back into the match immediately before the break, as Andrei Agius had a glimpse of goal but the well-placed Bonello saved his close-range shot.
The Paolites pushed forward in search of an equaliser after the break. That was served by Leonardo Nanni, who followed up a cutely-delivered ball inside the Valletta area and left himself almost no margin of error in getting the ball between Bonello and the goalpost to strike from an angled position.
Valletta were stunned, with the result that their earlier drive went somewhat missing as Hibs pushed forward in numbers.
Grech forced Bonello to an excellent save. This was the cue for Sanderra to thorw caution to the wind, throwing in JurgenDegabriele and Terrence Groothusen.
Abdilla replied with Bojan Kaljevic for Nwoko and Kevin Tulimieri in lieu of Joseph Zerafa.
In the final minutes, it was Hibs who came closest to break the deadlock when Degabriele’s close-range shot was instinctively stopped by Bonello.
VALLETTA: H. Bonello, J. Caruana (R. Camilleri), S. Borg, M. Piciollo, K. Nwoko (B. Kaljevic), J. Borg, E. Pena Beltre, J. Zerafa (K. Tulimieri), R. Muscat, I. Dzaria, M. Fontanella.
HIBERNIANS: M. Jovicic, F. Apap, L. Da Silveira, J. Mbong, J. Grech (J. Wemmer), B. Kristensen, D. Vella, G. Izquier, A. Agius, L. Nani (J. Degabriele), I. Iriberri (T. Groothusen)
Yellow Cards: S. Borg (V), G. Izquier, L. Nani, T. Groothusen (H)
Scorers: 43′ M. Fontanella, 63′ L. Nani (H)
BOV Player of the Match: M. Piciollo (V)
Referee: M. Spiteri