The Malta Independent 23 February 2020, Sunday

Football is back as Premier League kicks off today

Henry Brincat Friday, 17 August 2018, 13:00 Last update: about 3 years ago
Valletta's Steve Borg celebrates his goal against HSK Zrinjski  Photo © Domenic Aquilina
Valletta's Steve Borg celebrates his goal against HSK Zrinjski Photo © Domenic Aquilina

The Maltese Premier League gets under this weekend with the opening round between today and tomorrow.

Champions Valletta will be defending their title starting with what should be a tough test against Sliema Wanderers tomorrow.

There are also two very interesting matches to be played in this first round. Today, Birkirkara take on Balzan in the first derby of the season, while tomorrow, before the Sliema-Valletta clash, there is what should be a fiery clash between Hamrun Spartans and Floriana - two teams under Italian management.

Also today, newly promoted Qormi take on Senglea, while Hibernians will be facing the other promoted club, Pieta Hotspurs.

In other matches tomorrow, Mosta face St Andrews while Tarxien Rainbows come up against Gzira United.

I consider Valletta FC to be the clear favourites to retain the title, but it is evident that they will be pushed hard throughout the season which promises to be even more exciting than the last. In other words, I think they will still remain the team to beat.

Most of the teams, especially the top seven or eight clubs have been strengthened and all seem to be prepared to take a chance either for the League title or else to occupy one of the top three places which will see them qualifying for the Europa League next year.

There will be several new faces in each team. Several players have changed clubs but remained in the Premier League, while most of the clubs, particularly Hamrun and Birkirkara, have brought new foreigners to complement their squad, apart from making some good local signings as well.

Apart from Valletta, I expect Balzan, Gzira and Birkirkara to be among the challengers for the title, but Floriana, Hibernians, Sliema and Hamrun Spartans might also have their say - they are potential outsiders.

We have already seen Valletta, Balzan, Gzira and Birkirkara in action in their European matches and more or less, I can say that there will probably be more balance this season at the top.

The citizens, Balzan and Gzira obtained very good results and showed that they are well prepared for the start of the new season. Birkirkara also played a good match against Klaksvik of Faroe Islands at home, but then stumbled in the away match which saw them being eliminated.



Valletta's power seems to lie in attack this season where former Floriana strikers Piciollo and Fontanella as well as Kyrian Nowko should be the terror for most of the defences, if not all.

With players like Joseph Zerafa, Steve Borg and Ryan Darmanin at the back, Gill Cruz, Rowen Muscat and Santiago Malano in midfield, Danilo Doncic's side is well equipped for another good season.



Balzan are a very solid side, judging from their latest performances against strong Slovakian side Slovan Bratislava.

Players like Dale Camilleri, Lydon Micallef, Lecao, Steve Bezzina, Michael Johnson, Alfred Effiong, Uros Ljubomirac, Cadu, Bojan Kaljevic and Milos Lepovic need no introduction.

Gzira United are another team which continued to strengthen its ranks. Coach Darren Abdilla, who led the side to a creditable 3rd place last season can still rely on the valuable services of veteran and former internationals Roderick Briffa, Andrew Cohen and Justin Haber, but he also boasts the presence of several well known players like Clifford Gatt Baldacchino, Zachary Scerri, Rodolfo Soares and Jorginho, formerly of Hibernians, Emanuel Okoye, Amadou Samb, last season's league top scorer and newcomer Thomas Veronese.

Birkirkara also seem to be a strengthened team compared to last season. They have retained some of last season's foreigners, among them Mislav Andelkovic, but have also signed two well known Malta internationals in the form of veteran striker Michael Mifsud and midfielder Paul Fenech. Moreover, they will be awaiting the return from suspension of Ryan Camenzuli and Luke Montebello from the start of next year. Their squad also includes players of the calibre of Jake Grech, Cain Attard, Ryan Scicluna and former Valletta midfielder Uchenna Umeh.

I consider Floriana to be one of the potential outsiders to challenge seriously for the title.

Coach Nicolas Chiesa has also lost top striker Mario Fontanella, but can still boast of several good quality players in his squad. These include goalie Akpan, defenders Mohammed Saleh, Alex Cini, Enzo Ruiz and Arthur, midfielders Steve Pisani, former Hibs and Malta international Clayton Failla, Emerson Marcelina and strikers Ignacio Varela, Maurizio Vella and Terence Vella.

Sliema have also strengthened their ranks with the arrival of some new faces.

Coach John Buttigieg also has a squad with a mix of experience and youth. His players include, among others, goalkeepers Glen Zammit and Cotticelli, defenders Alex Muscat, Ashong and Bianciardi, midfielders Muchardi, John Mintoff, Mark Scerri, Edmond Agius and Michele Sansone. Their latest arrivals are Bnou Marzouk, of Moroccan origin, who was also on the books of Juventus and Malta international striker Jean Paul Farrugia.

Hibernians will have a different team from that seen the past season. They have appointed new coach Stefano Sanderra who, despite the loss of Failla, Jorginho and Soares, still has a good number of top class players the likes of goalkeeper Andrew Hogg, defenders Martin Kreuzriegler, Rui and Andrei Agius, midfielders Jackson Lima, Johan Bezzina and Bjorn Kristensen and newcomer from Croatia Ivan Bla?ević. Among the strikers are the established Jurgen Degabriele, Marcelo Dias and Joseph Mbong, complemented by several newcomers including Serbian defender Nemanja Radojevic and Brazilian striker Taylon Nicolas Correa Marcolino. 

Hamrun Spartans seem to be well equipped to offer a challenge as well, if not for the title, for a place in European football.

Hamrun, now led by coach Giovanni Tedesco, have signed several new faces --  Enrico Pepe, Antonio Monticelli, Sebastian Nayar, Kevin Tulimieri, Gaetano Gallina, Walter Ruben Acuna, Francesco Marra, Njongo Lobe Priso Doding, Jorge Nicolás Pandiani Quaglia, Samuele Romeo, Carlos Hernan Henneberg, Orestis Nikolopoulos, Pietro Viggiani, Conor Borg, Matthew Gauci, Caetano Prósperi Calil, Ryan Darmanin and goalkeeper Manuel Bartolo.



The remaining six teams will possibly be battling to avoid relegation, but it is to be mentioned that they have also secured the services of several players - local and foreigners - to be able to field a competitive side.

Mosta FC have a relatively young squad - average age 23. They have lost the services of Veronese and Zammit, but have signed several foreigners on whom they will be relying to maintain their top football status.

St Andrews are another side whose target will be definitely that of avoiding the drop to the first division. But included in their squad are experienced players like skipper (and coach) Joseph Farrugia, goalkeeper Matthew Calleja Cremona, defender Kemar Reid and the up and coming Matthew Gauci, already being given attention by national coach Ray Farrugia. Their squad now also includes experienced midfielder Kurt Magro who joined them from Mosta this summer.

Senglea Athletic coach Steve D'Amato must be more than happy to see that most of last year's players have remained at his disposal. These include well known established players like goalkeeper Cetrangolo, Hubert Vella, Ian Azzopardi, Jonathan Bondin, Nicola Palmieri, Terence Vella, Ivan Paz and Augusto Caseres. This side will be hoping to show further progress after having left a good impression last season.

Tarxien Rainbows are also expected to be fighting to avoid relegation. They have to forget all about last season when they only saved their status near the end through a playoff. They also have a number of experienced players and others who can be described as promising. These include goalkeeper Andrea Cassar and defender Baker. Their newcomers include Italian Michele Paolucci and Brazilian forward Jacson da Paixão Neponuceno. German defender Jens Wemmer, Italian Marco Botta and Anderson Francisco de Barros.



Premier newcomers Qormi and Pieta Hotspurs will possibly find the going tough, but I cannot exclude the fact that they have done their utmost to strengthen their squads. And like all the other teams they have also signed some foreigners, some of whom might be very interesting.

Qormi will have Gesualdi from Switzerland, Italians Davide Mansi and Paolo Vitale, Serbian Ludos Adamec, Brazilians Kassiano Soares and Ze Lucas.

Pieta have signed former Valletta goalie Nicholas Vella apart from some foreign players that include Spaniard Juan Manuel Ruiz Perez, Brazilian Tony, Nigerians Jalo Ishaya Irimiya, Paul Chimezie and L. Chiedozie as well as Japanese midfielder S. Nakamura.

Let us all hope to go through a successful season from all aspects. Despite all the criticism which local football faces, I still believe that the Premier League could be a good attraction for all local football enthusiasts.



The programme

(matchday 1)



National Stadium Ta' Qali: Bank of Valletta Premier League 7pm Birkirkara-Balzan.

Victor Tedesco Stadium: Bank of Valletta Premier League 6.30pm Qormi-Senglea Ath.; 8.45pm Hibernians-Pieta H.



National Stadium: Bank of Valletta Premier League 6.30pm Hamrun S.-Floriana; 8.30pm SliemaW.-Valletta.

Victor Tedesco Stadium: Bank of Valletta Premier League 6.30pm Mosta-St Andrews; 8.45pm Tarxien R.-Gzira U.

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