A poor football season ended with a bang rather than a whimper.
Birkirkara rallied from behind with a strong second half performance on a tense afternoon of drama to beat Hibernians in this end-of-season decider and clinch their fourth championship in the club’s history.
This success had been long in the coming, after the Stripes were so close of winning the title three days from the end of the campaign. Leading Hibernians one nil , they were caught up by a controversial penalty in added time to throw the issue wide open. But Birkirkara were not to be denied yesterday as the Paolites failed to beat the new champions in five matches this season.
This title win is just reward for Birkirkara’s committment, strong team work and maturity throughout the campaign.
This decider, played in front of the season’s best crowd, was always going to be a gruelling encounter with Hibernians’ best attack in the league against Birkirkara’s best defence.
Birkirkaras were sluggish and looked utterly nervous in the first half and handed all the initiative to their opponents, who took a first half lead courtesy of a Failla penalty.
Coach Woods’ tactical crux looked to have reaped enough rewards for the first 45 minutes.Dias, wide on the right but in a retreated midfield role, allowed no time for Edward Herrera to make his usual overlaps, besides testing the Birkirkara player’s defensive qualities with his intricate footwork.
On the opposite flank, Zach Muscat kept Failla well under check in the opening stages. Farrugia and Edison were provided with little service and it was only down to a subdued Cohen and Lima to create the openings through the middle.
In that area, Birkirkara were well covered by the solidity of Gareth Sciberras and Paul Fenech, with Rowen Muscat given a more advanced role.
In midfield, Kristensen was the fulcrum of Hibernians’ build-ups, almost always involved with his distribution across various parts of the field, although his influence on the game diminished in the second period.
But Paul Zammit’s tactical changes in the second half undid all Hibernians’ ploy in the second half. Birkirekara came back strong to completely outplay and outpower their opponents, scoring three goals to turn the tables.
Both sides had peaked at optimum time and produced their best in the Championship Pool between March and May. Birkirkara’s streak of nine unbeaten matches with seven wins and two draws, following defeat by Sliema Wanderers in February, saw them recover places from third to the top.
Hibernians suffered consecutive defeats against Birkirkara and Sliema Wanderers at the beginning of March, following their win against Tarxien Rainbows, but since remained unbeaten in the remaining seven matches, winning six and drawing the controversial one against Birkirkara.
The team sheets showed few changes from the almost standard regular names of both sides. Birkirkara’s forced replacement of their suspended work horse Joseph Zerafa with Zach Muscat, was one of two changes for the Stripes. The other was Jhonnattan’s preferred starting role instead of Shola Shodiya, scorer of Birkirkara’s winning goal against Tarxien Rainbows in the previous match.
Hibernians, on their part, recovered all of doubtfuls Marcelo Dias, Ryan Camilleri and Jean Paul Farrugia, but Zoran Levnaic made way for Jackson Lima in their starting line-up.
Hibernians made the more assertive start and to them fell the first chance of the match after five minutes. Farrugia lofted his effort after good work by Lima and Dias on the right.
The Paolites won two consecutive corners past the quarter hour. The first by Lima from teh right was blocked into another corner. On the second by Failla from the left, Cohen’s header was held out by the alert keeper Haber.
Birkirkara juggled with their nerves as they struggled to knit more than two passes together and their build-ups were erratic or too predictable. That enabled Hibernians to keep territorial superiority. From another Failla corner midway through the half, Soares’ header was easily dealt with by Haber.
The first defining moment of the match came on 32 minutes. Birkirkara’s defence was caught on the hop on a Hibernians’ fast break procured by Dias. Edison played the ball in open space for the advancing Failla. His shot at goal was blocked by Sciberras’ outstretched arm inside the are to concede a penalty. Failla steadied himself to score from the spot and give Hibernians the lead.
Birkirkara suffered a double blow as Jhonnattan, who had been limping and receiving treatment for some time was stretchered off and forced to be substituted by Shodiya immediately after the goal.
However the Stripes started to show more urgency. Shodiya found himself unmarked inside the area on Herrera’s pass but was blocked by Camilleri.
With halftime looming, Fenech’s sailing free kick caused panic inside the Hibernians’ area and from a Shodiya cross from the right, Mifsud Triganza headed slightly over.
As expected, Birkirkara made a strong comeback in the second period as Hibernians took a more laidback approach too early. Herrera was shifted to the right flank and with Dias marking him, the Hibernians winger was rendered highly ineffective. When Dias again moved on the right flank after Birkirkara’s second goal, Pereira was moved wide to blot him out.
It took Birkirkara 11 minutes to level matters, albeit the goal was shrouded in controvesry as the ball on Mifsud Triganza’s cross from the byeline, looked to have gone over before Edwrad Herrera darted in to side step past keeper Muscat.
That bolstered Birkirkara’s confidence who suddenly took the bit between their teeth. Shodiya failed to capitalise on Camilleri’s erratic clearance, ran inside the Hibernians’ area but shot feebly on the keeper.
The sense that this was going to be Birkirkara’s day was reinforced when Hibernians collapsed to concede for the second time from a set piece after 68 minutes. Keeper Muscat completely missed the flight of the ball as he rushed off his line to intercept Pereira’s sailing frr kick from the left and Nikola Vukanac was allowed to head into an unattended net.
Superior Bikirkara struck the fatal blow with the assuring third goal five minutes later. From a corner on the right, Mifsud Triganza played a square pass for Rowen Muscat to shoot low and Zach Muscat putting a final touch to deflect the ball past the helpless Muscat.
Despite effecting a double substitution, Hibernians could not summon enough effort to haul themselves back into the match and for the last quarter hour and an additional three minutes, Birkirkara could defend their lead with minimal difficulty to end up deserved winners and champions.