2001-2002 Valletta vs FC Haka
A committed performance from Valletta was not enough to give the Maltese champions the result they craved in their Champions League tie against Finnish champions FC Haka as the match at Ta’ Qali ended in a goalless stalemate.
When the draw was made in Switzerland a few weeks ago, Valletta officials and fans were unified in their conviction that their team’s chances of earning a berth in the second qualifying round of Europe’s premier club competition rested on the result of the first leg tie. Now that the Citizens have failed to exploit their home advantage, the sense of optimism at Valletta will inevitably diminish. But not all is lost yet.
That Valletta’s performance was not as convincing as we have become accustomed to over the last decade was something to be expected provided that Krassimir Manolov’s men have just started their pre-season conditioning whereas their opponents have been playing competitive football in the Finnish league for the past four months.
Fitness-wise Valletta have yet to improve but they certainly showed better technical qualities than their opponents who were more concerned with keeping their opponents at bay rather than posing some problems of their own in attack.
The fact that Haka’s most dangerous opportunity came courtesy of a defensive blunder by Bulgarian goalkeeper Emil Mitkov Dimitrov in the early minutes pays testament to their danger-limit priorities.
There were no surprises in Valletta’s starting line-up as Manolov opted for an experienced defence which had Darren Debono and Daniel Theuma playing at centre-half and Kris Laferla filling the void left by the injured John Buttigieg as sweeper.
The City’s engine room was run by Kamil Dvorak, Nicky Saliba and Ivan Zammit with Pavel Mraz and David Carabott patrolling the flanks.
Up front, Gilbert Agius linked up with Chris Oretan and the strikers certainly did more than their best to unlock the Haka defence but the Finns proved to be a very organised outfit and curbed the threat posed by the agile and quick City forwards.
Valletta should have taken the lead early on when Oretan powered his way into the Haka box before serving the advancing Agius whose first-time volley sailed high.
An appalling defensive howler by Dimitrov nearly gifted Haka an unexpected lead after 10 minutes. The Bulgarian dithered on the ball for so long after receiving a backpass that Karjalanein put pressure on him and was eventually presented with an open route to goal as the City goalie’s clearance ricocheted off his feet. To Dimitrov’s relief, the Haka skipper’s goalbound effort hit the crossbar.
Although Valletta enjoyed the lion’s share of possession against a cautious FC Haka side in the opening stages, they struggled to make an impact in attack as the lanky Finnish stoppers kept Oretan and Agius under lock and key.
On 21 minutes, Agius, eager to impress his potential future employers at Pisa who came to watch the match, created space for himself with a neat touch and body swerve but his long-range effort was easily saved by Vilnrotter in the Haka goal.
An intelligent pass from the revitalised Zammit released Oretan inside the Haka penalty area but the Nigerian was intercepted by the opposing goalkeeper as the Citizens stepped up their pressure.
On the stroke of half-time, a Zammit curling free-kick was deflected for a corner by the Haka defenders.
The second half continued in much the same subdued vein as the first one with Valletta toiling to breach the organised Haka rearguard.
Manolov switched Laferla to the centre of midfield after the veteran skipper started the match as libero, a move aimed to injecting some creativity into the Citizens’ midfield.
That defensive position was taken by Saliba after the change of ends.
A fine interchange between Carabott and the effective Agius created an inviting opening for Dvorak but the gangly legs of Saastamoinen blocked the Czech’s powerful shot into a corner.
Haka came close to breaking the stalemate 18 minutes from time when a dangerous header from Kovacs, from a Wilson free-kick, threatened to open up the City defence but Dimitrov displayed quick reflexes as he fisted away the ball. The locals replied with a rising shot from Zammit which flew over the bar.
Moments earlier, Manolov effected his first substitution, Renie Forace coming on for Carabott. This change necessitated another positional switch on the pitch with Mraz moving to the right and Forace picking up a role on the left.
Three minutes from time, a dangerous Mraz cross-shot was saved by Vilnrotter.
Source: Times of Malta
Valletta 0 FC Haka 0
First qualifying round, 1st leg
Valletta: E.M. Dimitrov, D. Theuma, D. Carabott (R. Forace), K. Laferla, D. Debono, I. Zammit, G. Agius, N. Saliba, C. Oretan, P. Mraz, K. Dvorak.
FC Haka: A. Vilnrotter, D. Bajic, K. Karjalainen, J. Saastamoinen, I. Aalto, K. Nyyssonen, T. Torkkeli (J. Pasanen), P. Kovacs, D. Wilson, J. Okkonen, J. Langaskorpi.
Referee: P. McKeon (Ireland)
Date: 11 July 2002
Competition: UEFA Champions League
National Stadium Ta’ Qali