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Wednesday, March 4, 2015


The final double-header of this series of match reports, covering football matches - in various divisions of the Maltese league set-up - which were played during late January and early February, took place at the Ta'Qali Stadium on 1/2/15, with the first match featuring BOV Premier League rivals Sliema Wanderers and Birkirkara.
Third-placed Birkirkara went into their match with mid-table Sliema Wanderers on 1/2/15 expecting to come away with nothing less than three points; the Stripes were some fifteen points behind rampant pace-setters Hibernians, who had drawn 1:1 with Mosta Gunners the day before. Sliema, on the other hand, were in seventh at the start of proceedings and had earned just the one point from their previous three games, having thrown a 3:1 lead away against Balzan in their last fixture to lose 5:3.

Sliema had the better of things during the first few minutes, but Birkirkara's Eliandro Dos Santos almost capitalised on a Blues defender failing to pick up a loose ball after five minutes and ran through a huge gap in the Sliema defence, but his shot was saved by 'keeper Glenn Sammit who had advanced to just past the penalty-spot. A minute later, Eliandro almost fashioned another chance for himself when he went on a run down the left, but he was denied by Joseph Borg's timely interception at the angle of the six-yard box.

Djumo Bocar slid the ball forward in midfield to Borg two minutes later, but the latter's shot from some 30 yards out was of the weak variety and easy for the man who was formerly Malta's first-choice goalie. The game's first yellow-card came in the ninth minute, when Birkirkara's Nikola Vukanac found himself in the book after a foul on Bocar.

INTO THE FRAY: Sliema Wanderers and Birkirkara take to the field before their clash on 1/2/15

In the 10th minute, Birkirkara had two attempts to take the lead foiled within a few seconds of each other. Sammit superbly stopped Eliandro's point-blank shot from the left, only to see the rebound come to Rafael Ledesma just outside the six-yard box; the Brazilian tamely shot at goal, and his effort was cleared off the line by Stefano Bianciardi.

Filipo Talato and Trevor Cilia had chances for Sliema; the former was able to run through on the left of the Stripes' box but Haber was out in smart fashion to collect, whilst Cilia turned and shot from 15 yards out, but his half-volley was well wide of the mark. Bocar then played a dangerous ball into the box, but there were too few blue shirts in support and Ryan Camenzuli headed clear.

Birkirkara stepped things up a notch, and took the lead after 19 minutes. Eliandro marauded down the right before passing to Gareth Sciberras, who crossed and found Ledesma, unmarked and six yards out to the left of goal, who headed past Zammit. It was all too easy: where was the Sliema defence?

It was all Birkirkara for the next ten minutes or so, with Eliandro's curling shot deflecting off a defender for a corner after 21 minutes, which was quickly followed by a dangerous Paul Fenech run on the left being ended by a last-ditch tackle from Alex Muscat. 

There was a curious yellow card for Sliema's Trevor Cilia in the 28th minute; Luxembourger referee Kopriwa appeared to book him for time-wasting at a free-kick. Anyway, Cilia took the kick which came to Borg, but his hook-shot was easy meat for Haber.

Two minutes elapsed before Scicluna was the recipient of a ball played across the Sliema area to feet on the left; he ghosted past Muscat only to shoot wide from five yards out. Scicluna was booked for a foul on Beppe Muscat when attempting to curtail a Sliema counter-attack, and joining him in Kopriwa's little black book moments later was Borg, carded for a challenge on Camenzuli which was a fair one to everyone else in the stadium.

NO WAY THROUGH: Sliema Wanderers duo Fillipo Talato and Djumo Bocar are outnumbered on the near side by Birkirkara players including Stripes captain Gareth Sciberras and Mauricio Mazzetti

Muscat was not having his best game in the Sliema colours, and he and John Mintoff were guilty of a lapse in concentration a minute before half-time when they allowed Eliandro to glide between them on the left-hand side of the area and deliver a header from eight yards out, but fortunately for the Blues duo, the header was weak and bounced into Zammit's hands. 

There was still time for Bocar to try his luck at the other end, but the ball flew over Haber's crossbar. Haber and Bocar were booked on half-time for protesting, while, unseen by all and sundry, Paul Fenech appeared to put his head into Mintoff's face; Mintoff had been stirring things up a little, but didn't make a meal of Fenech's unwanted greeting. 

The Stripes began the second half on the front foot, with Fenech's free-kick four minutes after the restart being saved by Zammit at the second attempt, before yet another last-ditch tackle, this time from Bianciardi, Sliema's best defender in the first-half, who denied Scicluna six yards out from an open goal on the right.

Birkirkara were doing most of the pressing at this stage, with Scicluna and Shola Haruna providing dangerous crosses time and again from either side of the Wanderers defence, who were playing dangerously deep within their own half of the field. 

A hugely ineffective Mintoff's suffering was ended when he was substituted by Peter Xuereb, whilst Scicluna was taken off and replaced by Edmond Agius; between the substitutions, Scicluna's team-mate Edward Herrera was booked for a late tackle on Cilia.

A Haruna handball on 69 minutes was missed by the ref; the Birkirkara man's pass to Eliandro was followed by a low cross from the left which was fumbled at ground-level by Zammit. The ball fell to Camenzuli six yards out who swept it into the net; Birkirkara thought they had doubled their lead, but, luckily for Sliema, the linesman had already flagged for offside. Blues' manager Stephen Azzopardi immediately substituted Filipo Talato with Andrea Pisanu.

DANGER MAN: Birkirkara's Shola Haruna skips past his Sliema Wanderers counterpart Beppe Muscat

Another case of dithering within the Sliema defence was almost punished in the 72nd minute after a Ledesma ball from the right-hand side was picked up by Agius, who had skipped through the defence and struck from 10 yards out; it was another lucky escape for those in front of Zammit as the ball cannoned off the top of the bar.

Birkirkara were utterly dominant now, and even though Sliema were showing slightly more attacking promise, their defence was vulnerable and extremely hesitant. The Blues' attacks were hampered by poor final balls or too little support from midfield.

A good display from Eliandro ended suddenly with less than a quarter of an hour left when he pulled up clutching his hamstring. He was replaced by Kurt Zammit. Beppe Muscat quickly followed him; the Blues man was subbed by Axl Xuereb.

Ten minutes were left on the clock when Ledesma found Agius with an accurate pass; the pass may have been accurate but Agius was marginally offside when the ball was played. The linesman did not pick up on this, though, and the substitute ran on and shot, only to be denied by the woodwork for the second time in less than ten minutes.

Sliema attacks had been rare throughout the second half, but there was a glimmer of a chance with three minutes to go, when a good knock down by Bocar was picked up by Cilia; this came to nothing as what appeared to be a cross between a shot and a ball over the defence was picked up with ease by Haber, who had been virtually unemployed for the entire second-half.

There was more injury misfortune for Birkirkara, meanwhile, when Sciberras was saddled with a knee injury which necessitated his substitution by Matheus Bissi.

Just when Birkirkara thought they would be taking the points back to base with them, the unthinkable happened. Following a hopeful punt upfield from a Sliema midfielder in the 88th minute, the ball reached the edge of the Stripes' penalty-area, where Haber, team-mate Maurizio Mazzetti and Wanderers' Bocar competed for the ball. The ball came out to the onrushing Cilia, who flipped the ball off Mazzetti, over Huber and beyond the backtracking Nikola Vukanac into the empty Birkirkara net.

ON THE BALL: Sliema Wanderers' Djumo Bocar attempts to find a way through the Birkirkara midfield; moments later, team-mate Trevor Cilia would score a late equaliser for the Blues

The scenes in the Sliema enclosure were joyous in the extreme, but most of the noise did not emanate from the Blues fans; rather, the racket came in the main from the Valletta fans who were gathering to watch their fixture with Balzan which was up next.

Four minutes of injury-time were played, but, as was the case during normal time in the second half, Birkirkara were unable to convert their pressure into something more tangible, and Sliema Wanderers came away with an improbable draw, much to the delight of their tiny contingent of fans.

It must all have felt like dejà vu for Birkirkara's team, staff and fan base; they had conceded an injury-time equaliser against runaway leaders Hibernians the week before. Still, they were to receive some reasonably heartening news before bedtime, but that, as they say, is another story..  

The injury-hit duo of Scicluna and Sciberras, together with Camenzuli, Ledesma and Haruna, were Birkirkara's finest on the day, with Bianciardi shining for the Blues, with Borg, Bocar and Zammit all more than doing their bit to keep the good ship Sliema afloat. Insert your own cliché here if you will, but Sliema Wanderers' display surely proved that one good ball, followed by one good shot on goal, can be enough to garner something from a match. 

SLIEMA WANDERERS: 1 Glenn ZAMMIT, 2 Alex MUSCAT, 4 Andrea SCOZZESE, 6 Joseph BORG, 7 John MINTOFF (17 Peter XUEREB), 14 Fillipo TALATO (10 Andrea PISANU), 15 Marko POTEZICA, 16 Trevor CILIA, 24 Djumo BOCAR, 28 Beppe MUSCAT (5 Axl XUEREB), 33 Stefano BIANCIARDI

SUBSTITUTES (unused): 3 Luca MARTINELLI, 11 Michele SANSONE, 18 Carl CASSAR, 23 Timothy AQUILINA

BIRKIRKARA: 16 Justin HABER, 11 ELIANDRO Dos Santos (20 Kurt ZAMMIT), 15 Nikola VUKANAC, 5 Mauricio MAZZETTI, 19 Shola HARUNA, 10 Rafael LEDESMA, 4 Gareth SCIBERRAS (8 Edmond AGIUS), 2 Edward HERRERA, 6 Paul FENECH, 7 Ryan CAMENZULI, 21 Ryan SCICLUNA (3 Matheus BISSI)

SUBSTITUTES (unused): 12 Ini AKPAN, 13 Andrea CURMI, 17 Beppe JACORINI, 23 Antoine BORG

UPDATE: Sliema Wanderers ended up having quite a good February, and went on to win two of the other three games they played during the month, their only (other) blemish coming against Pietà Hotspurs on 28/2/15 when they conceded an equaliser in injury-time. They are currently in sixth place.

A week after they played Sliema Wanderers, Birkirkara drew 1:1 with Valletta. They won their next two games and currently remain in third place with a much-reduced deficit on leaders Hibernians. Clubs play each other three times during the season, a total of 33 games. After playing 22 matches, the points total of each club is halved and brought forward to Phase 2, where clubs play each other once.

Both teams are due to play each other again on 7/3/15.
AUTHOR'S NOTE: Many thanks to Gerry and the rest of the MFA matchday staff on duty at the National Stadium; the Times of Malta was used for comparison and reference.

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