The Malta Independent 26 March 2019, Tuesday

Valletta Pick up title pace after remarkable fightback

Malta Independent Sunday, 24 January 2010, 00:00 Last update: about 7 years ago

Hibernians 2

Valletta 4

Hibernians: M. Muscat, E. Herrera, A. Pulis, J. Caruana (C. Camilleri), M. Lopes De Pina (B. Camillieri), A. Xuereb, J. Pearson (R. Camilleri), R. Galabov, C. Callejas, E. Barbara, A. Cohen

Valletta: A. Hogg, S. Bezzina, S. Borg, L. Dimech, K. Scicluna, G. Agius (D. O'Brien), K. Sammut (E. Agius), J. Pace, R. Briffa, T. Scerri, D. Falzon (N. Priso Doding)

Referee: A.M. Sant Asst.refs: I. Spiteri, K. Borg 4th official: K. Azzopardi

Scorers: G. Agius (2), J. Caruana, A. Cohen, K. Sammut, N. Priso Doding

Yellow cards: L. Da Pina, S. Bezzina, L. Dimech, M. Muscat, N. Priso Doding, A. Xuereb

Player of the match: Gilbert Agius (Valletta)

TMI top three: 1. R. Briffa 2. G. Agius 3. E. Herrera

Valletta's eight-point gap over Hibernians can still be bridged and far from unassailable at this stage, but the Citizens' second half performance yesterday will surely reverberate across the Premier League in the coming weeks.

They have widened the gap to three points above Birkirkara, the latter playing tomorrow against Floriana, as they start to show their true potential as title aspirants.

Valletta were full of assertive enthusiasm against the reigning champions and staged a remarkable comeback to score three goals within eight minutes. The final result was a product of an impressive unanimity of will and purpose.

Both sides set out with attacking policies although the game was lamentably lacking on meaningful goalmouth action in the early exchanges.

A slow burner was showing signs of combustion and the match finally came to life in the second half, producing five of the six goals, as well as the better football and excitement.

Valletta were more dangerous in the first half as Hibernians found it desperately hard to make real progress against Valletta's blanket cover which had kept clean sheets in their previous two matches.

Hibernians again erased an early deficit after the restart, hitting Valletta with two quick goals, but Priso's inclusion gave the Citizens the required impetus to make a remarkable fightback and win 4-2.

Valletta had relegated the not fully fit Priso and O'Brien to the bench, as Steve Borg and the returning Gilbert Agius were given starts. The Valletta skipper played in an advanced role, supporting the former Hibernians forward Terence Scerri in attack, while Kevin Sammut played wide on the flank and Roderick Briffa and Jamie Pace filled the other midfield slots.

Hibernians were buoyed by the return of Callejas from injury and Etienne Barbara from suspension, while giving a debut appearance to a new Brazilian striker Miguel Lopes De Pina, following the departure of Oleg Malasenoks and the failure to agree terms with Dingli for the recruitment of Joseph Okonkwo.

Andrew Cohen was also declared fit and started the match, as a wide player. But neither he nor Barbara managed to make an impact on the flanks, with wing backs Borg and Bezzina looking strong and resolute for Valletta.

It was therefore left to Herrera to rake deep crosses from the right, but that hardly ever troubled the Valletta rearguard, ably marshalled by Dimech and Scicluna and Hogg in goal.

The Valletta custodian hardly needed to be in attendance during the first half, except when called to hold out a Cohen diagonal shot after 36 minutes.

Valletta had gone in front on 19 minutes, after a barren first quarter hour which produced nothing noteworthy except misses by Gilbert Agius on a Falzon cross and a Jonathan Caruana header over the bar on Xuereb's deep cross.

But when Pace hit the ball clumsily, it fell into the path of Gilbert Agius who, unmolested in front of the Hibernians goal, beat keeper Muscat with relative ease.

With Hibernians' ineptitude to make a reaction, Valletta could defend their lead with minimal difficulty and could have easily increased that before the half was over were it not for Scerri who missed three clear chances between the 40 and 45 minutes.

He missed the target when shrugging off Caruana's challenge after put through by Briffa, when connecting on a teasing Falzon cross and again after the Hibernians' defence had failed to clear a Sammut through pass.

Luckily, the match offered better excitement in the second half, even because Hibernians were a transformed side after the interval and within five minutes of the second half scored two goals in quick succession to turn the match on its head.

On 48 minutes, Barbara played a short corner to Cohen who crossed for defender Jonathan Caruana to turn attacker and head past keeper Hogg.

Hardly a minute later, Barbara ran down the right flank and his perfect cross fell to the unmarked Andrew Cohen to head Hibernians 2-1 in front.

But Valletta were not demoralised and, after putting in Priso for Falzon, they began to find the pace and movement to really embarrass the Paolites' rearguard.

Agius pounced on Briffa's pass inside the Hibernians area but his shot was blocked into a corner. On 65 minutes, a Borg long throw-in was headed down by Priso towards Scerri who had his effort blocked into another corner.

Hibernians' best chance to put the issue beyond doubt fell on 69 minutes. A Cohen free kick from the left found De Pina unattended inside the Valletta area but the Brazilian failed to put his head to the ball.

Valletta upped the tempo and on 71 minutes Gilbert Agius completed his excellent individual performance by drawing level with a stunning strike after surprising the static Hibernians' defence. He ran inside the area for Briffa's equally intelligent through ball and beat keeper Muscat with a powerful half volley.

Suddenly the balance of power had shifted back in Valletta's favour. On 76 minutes Scicluna's deep free kick from the left was headed out by Pulis towards Agius who played it to Kevin Sammut to advance and beat Muscat from a tight angle.

After that goal, De Pina was injured and substituted by Ben Camilleri but Valletta, who had even replaced Gilbert Agius with O'Brien, made it a more emphatic win with their fourth goal ten minutes from time. That came from some devastating finish from Priso Doding, after outpacing Pearson inside the area on a short Sammut corner, drilling a powerful shot past the helpless Muscat to completely dismantle the champions.

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