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Saturday, March 7, 2015


The BOV Premier League match between Balzan and Valletta at the National Stadium (Ta'Qali) on 1/2/15 was the second in a double-header which took place on that date, the first being a 1:1 draw between Sliema Wanderers and Birkirkara. The former is also the last to be featured in a series of match-reports covering games in three of the four divisions in the Maltese league system.
The match between Valletta and Balzan promised much as it was as much a meeting between old and new as it was about the points; the Lilywhites quite possibly have the biggest trophy cabinet in Maltese football, whilst Balzan's rise over the past few years has been partly due to money being pumped into the club by Australian-based honorary president Anton Tagliaferro.  

 FLYING THE FLAG: Valletta's Ultras Beltin attempt to get the Citizens' support warmed up before the game against Balzan

Valletta were 13 points behind runaway leaders Hibernians at kick-off, and their fans were hopeful of their heroes reducing the deficit in significant fashion, having watched - and cheered - as Birkirkara dropped two points against Sliema Wanderers in the afternoon's first game. Balzan were sitting comfortably in fourth place and a win against the champions would come in very handy as the regular season neared its conclusion.

Valletta were dominant during the early stages of the game, playing a patient possession game which didn't really trouble a resolute-looking Balzan defence, who were extremely happy to soak up the early pressure and who were more than ready to send their team-mates forward at every opportunity.

With nine minutes gone, a long ball out of the Balzan defence found Bojan Kaljevic all alone on the right-hand side deep inside Valletta territory with only Valletta 'keeper Nicky Vella between him and putting his team in front. Vella dashed at least 20 yards out of his area in an attempt to block Kaljevic, but it was in vain; Kaljevic simply hoofed the ball powerfully over Vella and - accurately - into the top far corner of the net. 

ON THE ATTACK: Valletta attack during the early stages of the first half, but Balzan hold firm

The goal stunned both the Valletta players and their supporters, who fell increasingly silent in the period following the goal, although Ryan Fenech helped them find their voice again in the 16th minute following a patient build-up and his run through the middle of the Balzan defence, which was followed by a shot from 20 yards which was just wide of Steve Sultana's right-hand post.

Roderick Briffa did exactly the same thing a minute later, but his shot had the same result as Fenech's from a similar distance moments earlier: it flew just wide of Sultana's right-hand post. The Valletta pressure on the Balzan defence continued, but goal attempts were few and far between.

Then, on 26 minutes, Fenech breezed past Samir Arab and nutmegged Terence Agius on the edge of the Balzan box before running on to confidently put the ball through Sultana's legs to equalise and to breathe new life into the encounter - and the Valletta support.

However, Balzan were not about to lie down and continued to resist the white tide with no little success. They were also able to mount sporadic attacks of their own. Seven minutes were left in the first half when Kaljevic found Dylan Grima on the left-hand side, who delivered a cross that was dealt with by Jonathan Caruana, only for the ball to go directly to Gianmarco Piccioni; Piccioni's volley, however, cleared Vella's crossbar by a distance.

Fenech had another crack at goal, but his shot from 25 yards went a long, long way wide. Valletta's new signing, Dutch forward Djamel Leeflang, was substituted by Shaun Bajada with half-time looming as manager Gilbert Agius attempted to put more impetus into his team, who were playing with a certain listlessness, an apathy even.

 SURPRISE: Balzan celebrate Bojan Kaljevic's ninth-minute opener

Balzan's Edison Zarate delivered the first shot of the second half three minutes in, but his drop-kick from 20 yards out fizzed wide of the left-hand post. A minute later, Zarate's team-mate Kaljevic was the victim of a foul on the near touchline by Ian Azzopardi, who was booked for his mistimed challenge. A good Balzan move a few minutes later ended with Kaljevic's shot from just over 20 yards out going harmlessly wide to Vella's left.

Abdelkarim Nafti tried his luck from distance as Valletta attempted to stamp their authority on the game, but it was yet another shot which failed miserably to find the target. Llewelyn Cremona was then taken off and replaced by Lateef Elford-Alliyu in the hope that the former Tranmere Rovers loanee and Bury first-teamer could repeat his double strike against Naxxar Lions from the previous match. Fenech had another shot on goal from outside the penalty-area; he appeared to be in an offside position when the ball was played through to him, but it mattered not as his daisy-cutter was saved by Sultana.

A spell of play in and around the Valletta goal eventually saw Kaljevic booked on the hour for impeding Vella after a corner-kick; play then switched to the Balzan half once again where Nafti's pass down the left-hand side reached Elford-Alliyu who raced past a defender and delivered a cross-shot that was put behind for a corner. 

Samir Arab was the target for a Balzan counter-attack which heralded the start of another period when the underdogs were on top; unfortunately, he put the ball over the bar. Kaljevic then attempted to combine with Oscar Guerrero but was unable to reach the latter's cross and the ball was cleared. Justin Grioli was the next Balzan player to have a go, but his shot across goal from the right was high though not far wide. Dylan Grima was the intended target of a low cross from Terence Agius, but couldn't quite connect with the ball and the danger was cleared, though not before there were appeals for a penalty against Citizens defender Ryan Camilleri which were dismissed by the referee.

 DANGER MAN: Bojan Kaljevic teases the Valletta defence on the near side early on in the second half

Nafti, who had had a bit of an off-day, was subbed by Ikenna Hilary with 17 minutes left, and he hardly had time to sit down on the Valetta bench before their opponents went in front, and what a goal it was, too. Gianmarco Piccioni received the ball with his back to Vella's goal, turned and, from a distance of some 25 yards out, unleashed a viciously swerving and dipping volley which looped over the completely bamboozled Vella and flew into the Valletta net.

It seemed as though the entire crowd were stunned by Piccioni's strike, though this changed as the Italian ran to celebrate his goal right in front of the Valletta fans, who reacted furiously enough to the provocation for the police to intervene as some of the supporters attempted to scale the perimeter fence. Piccioni, like Valletta's Ryan Fenech in the first half, received a yellow card for his exuberance.

A sense of urgency gripped Valletta, and Fenech, who had essentially been at the hub of everything his team attempted to create right from the word go, had a header saved by Sultana with just under 15 minutes left to play. Elford-Alliyu had been buzzing around since his introduction, and he beat Sultana with a shot with 10 minutes to go, but the linesman already had his flag in the air as Elford-Alliyu had been in an offside position as he received the through-ball.

Valletta were becoming increasingly desperate and careless, and Balzan were constantly on the lookout for the opportunity to capitalise on any errors, though Fenech was unlucky not to level things up in the 83rd minute when his shot from just outside the error almost broke the crossbar in two; Hillary was unable to turn in the rebound and the ball was cleared.

NO CONNECTION: Terrence Agius' cross finds no-one in the Valletta penalty-area

Dylan Grima, who had played well in Balzan's defence throughout the match, was replaced by Lydon Micallef with five minutes to go, before Piccioni had the chance to make the game safe thanks to good work from Kaljevic and Oscar Guerrero who were on counter-attacking duties, but he delayed shooting after Kaljevic's pass and lost the ball.

Luke Dimech was yellow-carded for a crude challenge on Kaljevic as the second half inched towards injury-time, and this was quickly followed by Piccioni being substituted by Ryan Darmanin. Elford-Alliyu had a rather scuffed attempt on the Balzan goal blocked by Elkin Serrano who had been something of an unsung hero throughout the match, getting on with the job and not being terribly fussy about how he went about it. 

Guerrero was taken off in the second of four minutes of injury-time and replaced by Ryan Darmanin, but not before he shot wide from inside the penalty-area at the end of a counter-attack, stumbling as he did so. Shaun Bajada had a cross-shot palmed away by Sultana, and the last few moments featured some harum-scarum football from both sides, before the referee put Valletta out of their misery.

Balzan had taken the points, but they had hardly been stolen from Valletta, who, despite having the majority of the possession and for all Fenech's efforts, simply did not seem to know what to do with the ball when they had it, or seemed too afraid to have a shot at goal. Apart from Fenech, Ryan Camilleri was solid in defence and Hamza Barry and Nafti impressed. 

Balzan came with a game-plan, which seemed to be to frustrate Valletta and rely on counter-attacks, and the game-plan worked an absolute treat. Compliments go to the defence in its entirety, and to Kaljevic and Guerrero for their toiling upfront. The celebrations were long and loud amongst the knot of Balzan fans in the far upper corner of the stand and their charges on the field, and deservedly so. 

Anton Tagliaferro's approach of strengthening the Balzan squad at every opportunity might not be to everyone's taste, but, bit by bit, it seems to be paying dividends. Could they become the next Birkirkara? Time will tell, of course, but this result virtually assures them of a top four finish at the end of the regular season, and leaves them handily-placed for a tilt at a top-three finish in the championship phase.

VALLETTA: 28 Nicky VELLA, 2 Jonathan CARUANA, 3 Ian AZZOPARDI, 5 Ryan CAMILLIERI, 6 Ryan FENECH, 8 Hamza BARRY, 10 Roderick BRIFFA, 21 Llewelyn CREMONA (15 Lateef ELFORD-ALLIYU), 24 Djamel LEEFLANG (18 Shaun BAJADA), 30 Abdelkarim NAFTI (22 Ikenna HILLARY), 36 Luke DIMECH

SUBSTITUTES (unused): 1 Pietro MARINO, 16 Jean BORG, 25 Kurt BORG, 27 Nicholas PULIS

BALZAN: 12 Steve SULTANA, 4 Justin GRIOLI, 10 Dylan GRIMA (7 Lydon MICALLEF), 5 Samir ARAB, 8 Edison ZARATE, 20 Terence AGIUS, 86 Bojan KALJEVIC, 70 Oscar GUERRERO (15 Luke SCIBERRAS), 16 Clive BRINCAT, 14 Gianmarco PICCIONI (18 Ryan DARMANIN), 23 Elkin SERRANO

SUBSTITUTES (unused): 1 Christian CASSAR, 17 Godwin McKAY, 9 Jean-Pierre MIFSUD TRIGANZA, 6 Seán CIPRIOTT
UPDATE: Both teams have played three matches since the above fixture, and both Balzan and Valletta have won one, drawn one and lost one. At the time of writing, with the points gained during the regular season being halved as the season has moved into what the MFA calls "Phase 2", Hibernians remain unbeaten and now have an 8-point advantage over Birkirkara, with Valletta now three points behind the Stripes on 25 points. Balzan are in fourth, ahead of Floriana on goal difference.

Sliema Wanderers occupy sixth place on 18 points, four ahead of Mosta Gunners; Pietà Hotspurs are ahead on Zebbug Rangers on goal difference in eighth. Naxxar Lions are tenth on 11 points, ahead of Tarxien Rainbows on goal difference. Qormi are propping up the table on 9 points.

AUTHOR'S NOTE: Thanks as always go the MFA matchday squad (and Gerry in particular); The Times of Malta and the Malta Football website were used to compare and confirm notes. As ever, any errors/omissions are the author's own.

Should you wish to peruse the other reports in the series, please find below the links to the matches in question and use the old tried and trusted copy and paste method:

Tarxien Rainbows : Qormi, 27/1/15:

Zebbug Rangers : Pietà Hotspurs, 27/1/15:

Gzira United : Gudja United, 30/1/15:

Mdina Knights : Ta'Xbiex SC, 31/1/15:

Luqa St. Andrew's : Marsaskala, 31/1/15:

Sliema Wanderers : Birkirkara, 1/2/15:

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