Naxxar back in Premier Division, mission accomplished for Swieqi & St AndrewsPublished: Wed 15 Mar 2023, 13:57
BOV CHALLENGE LEAGUE MATCH DAY 24 REVIEW
Zejtun Corinthians 1-2 Naxxar Lions
After a lapse of four years, Naxxar Lions are back in the Premier Division, sealing promotion by beating Zejtun Corinthians by the odd goal in three, with four league matches to go. A much-deserved promotion for the Lions who have been, with Sliema, the most consistent team in the Challenge League this season.
The strong wind played a huge part at the Centenary Stadium on Sunday morning, with Zejtun playing against the wind in the 1st half, keeping the Lions surprisingly at bay until half-time. Naxxar dominated the fixture and on 21 minutes, Robinson Blandon could have put the Reds ahead but the Colombian striker blasted high from an ideal position. On the stroke of half-time, Zejtun goalkeeper Christopher Farrugia made a splendid safe on a Erikys da Silva header.
The match exploded after the break. On 49 minutes, Naxxar were awarded a penalty when David Xuereb brought down Erikys in the box. Captain Ryan-Gilmour Cassar kicked convincingly home from 11-meters to give the Lions a deserved one nil lead. Naxxar doubled on 69 minutes when Erikys did all the hard work on the left flank, entering the box and serving Blandon at the far post, who tapped home. This instigated the party on the stands for Naxxar, backed by a large contingent from the village. However, on 81 minutes, Zejtun were back in the game when substitute Rafael de Fex scored direct from a corner, helped by the crosswinds, with Cini having a hand on it. On the stroke of full-time there was a shout for a Corinthians penalty, claiming a handsball in the Naxxar box, but the referee waved to play on. Tempers flared in stoppage time when Erikys and De Fex clashed and both players were given their marching orders. The match was played however, with the Naxxar clan celebrating the promotion in style with their supporters.
Zurrieq 0-1 Sliema Wanderers
Challenge league leaders Sliema Wanderers recorded their 12th consecutive win of the season, this time a narrow 1-0 victory over Zurrieq thanks to a late penalty by Jean Carlos. Looking at the fighting spirit of the team coached by George Magri, the Southerners deserved to get a point from this encounter, but quality eventually persisted.
Sliema, who played without various regulars, opened quietly with only a free-kick of Neil Frendo to record on 13 minutes, which sailed inches over the crossbar. Zurrieq goalkeeper was called into action for the first time just after the half hour, saving from a Sebastian Grech corner, which created havoc in the box. Rashid Al-Tumi on the other side did well on 39 minutes, saving a Xylon Portelli attempt. In the attack on the other side that followed, Jean Carlos missed from close-range and Lydon Micallef had his first opportunity on 42 minutes with Zarb tipping his header over the bar.
Three minutes after the break, Jean Carlos was close to break the deadlock with a header from a Jake Engerer cross but missed target. Just after the hour, Zurrieq nearly capitalised on a rare Sliema defensive error, with Al Tumi saving Portelli’s close-range effort. On 68 minutes, Sliema were given a penalty after Engerer was fouled in the box, with Jean Carlos blasting home from 11-meters. On 81 minutes, Micallef should have doubled but instead of shooting he opted to pass to Jean Carlos, who failed to connect.
Should Sliema beat Zejtun after the international break, they will be crowned champions of the 2022/23 National Challenge League.
Tarxien Rainbows 3-0 Melita
Last Saturday at the Centenary stadium, Tarxien Rainbows registered a very important win against direct Play-Off contenders Melita. The 3-0 victory means that Tarxien have now approached Zejtun on a two points distance in the ranking, while Melita’s cards are not very favourable with an eight point gap behind the Rainbows with four matches to go. The match was largely conditioned with heavy winds with both sides struggling with controlling the ball.
After just six minutes, Darren Falzon broke the deadlock for the Rainbows with a strike from a close range. On the half hour mark, Tarxien increased their lead with a well-timed shot from inside the area by Jairinho.
After the break, the Blues put the outcome of the match beyond doubt on 74 minutes with another goal by Jairinho, who beat the offside trap, having the better of Melita custodian Ryan Caruana, sealing a handsome win for Jacques Scerri’s side.
Swieqi United 2-1 Mtarfa
Steve D’Amato’s Swieqi obtained a last gasp winner against ten-man Mtarfa, not only consolidating their top spot in the Play Out group, but also sealing their Challenge League status for another season. On the other hand, the defeat leaves Mtarfa firmly at the bottom of the table, being almost doomed to a quick return to Amateur football next season.
The game was keenly contested with most of the drama in the second half with Italian substitute Leonardo De Bortoli being Swieqi’s hero as he scored both goals to turn defeat into victory. On 38 minutes, Mtarfa were reduced to ten men when Maximilian Borg Bartolo was sent off for a foul on Gilberto Carrara, denying Swieqi an obvious goalscoring opportunity.
But eight minutes into the second half, Mtarfa took a surprise lead when Gianluca Sultana scored a great goal direct from a freekick. On 65 minutes Swieqi went close when a Juan Morales freekick smashed against the crossbar. Four minutes later, Swieqi equalised with a De Bortoli close range header. Mtarfa missed a sitter when Genesis missed the target with only the goalkeeper to beat. Manual Caruana’s side paid dearly for this as on 93 minutes Swieqi scored the winner again through De Bortoli.
Qrendi 0-2 St Andrews
With a goal in each half St Andrews grabbed another three points to go in safe waters and saved from relegation with a 13-point gap on number seven San Gwann. On their part, it was another severe blow for Qrendi, even if they still are with a chance of avoiding the big drop, but they cannot lose further ground in the remaining four matches. St.Andrews fully deserved their victory as they were the better team, creating the best chances and with Qrendi always a step back.
Luka Mijic opened the account just before the end of the first half, finishing a very swift move started from the right flank. After lemon time on 63 minutes, Qrendi's faith was sealed when Connor Borg headed past his own goalkeeper in an attempt to clear the ball.
Qrendi play Lija, Fgura, Marsaskala and Marsa in their final four games, in an attempt to save their season.
Vittoriosa Stars 1-0 Fgura United
Also Fgura could have sealed their Challenge League status with another year but surprisingly lost to Vittoriosa Stars, who therefore ended Fgura’s seven game unbeaten streak. With this victory, the Birgu side remain with a glimmer of hope of avoiding relegation. Also in this game, the strong cross-wind played his part.
In the 35th minute, in what was the first real action of the game, Vittoriosa’s Desire Koiba scored what proved to be winner, a beautiful volley from outside the box into the top right corner, leaving Fgura custodian Julian Azzopardi without a chance. Barely two minutes later, Fgura had a good chance to equalize from a counter attack, but Spyros Nicolaou’s low shot to the near post was saved well by Christian Cassar.
Fgura came out of the dressing rooms pressing early to try and obtain the equalizer and after just two minutes into the second half, Wellington cut the ball to the edge of the area towards Matthew Brincat, who’s shot sailed inches over the bar. Throughout the second half, Fgura kept the initiative but lacked the final pass to restrict any goalmouth action in the box of the Stars. In the 87th minute, there was a rare Birgu chance when Larson Mallia’s curling pass found Junior Dibola, who missed a good chance to double and seal the win. However, Vittoriosa were able to hold onto their slender lead until the end of the game, to obtain a priceless three points in their quest for survival.
Attard 1-1 Lija Athletic
Neighbours Attard and Lija shared the spoils on Sunday afternoon, a result which favoured Lija more than Attard, who are still on a safe spot in the standings but have to fight till the end to keep their status.
On 20 minutes, Lija escaped when a direct in swinging corner by Bledi Alla was carried by the wind and nearly surprised Lija custodian Luke Bonnici. Attard took the lead on 40 minutes thanks to Yuto Morita, who blasted home on the turn from close-range. Although Lija had their moments, it was a deserved lead for the team of Daniel Agius. Not much later, Bonnici did well to turn another Morita goal attempt into a corner, a golden opportunity to double.
After the break on 55 minutes, Alla should have doubled after being sent through but his lob over Bonnici ended on the top of the crossbar. Lija had his best chance on 75 minutes with Duvan Mosquera’s attempt being cancelled out by Zach Valletta and with substitute Miguel Micallef missing the rebound. Lija pressed hard for an equaliser and two minutes later, Kotaro Kishi’s close-range shot was blocked by Valletta, who kept his team in the match at that point. On 79 minutes however, Mosquera equalised after Kotaro did all the hard work with the Colombian finishing low past Valletta. It was again Valletta who saved on 83 minutes, denying a winner of the unmarked Bradley Sciberras, turning his shot into a corner.
While Lija realistically need six points from their remaining encounters, Attard need to get a result in each and every game left. They play Fgura, Marsaskala, Marsa and Mtarfa respectively in their final four games.
Mqabba 1-2 Marsa
After a series of negative results, Marsa bagged the full three points against Mqabba with the winner being scored deep into stoppage time of the match. With 31 points ranked fifth, things look much brighter now for Ryan Fenech’s side as they are six points above the relegation zone.
Marsa were the better team in this encounter and in the first half, they produced several goal attempts. However, like in the previous Play-Out encounters, they initially failed to find the net.
Deep into the second half, Luca Brincat’s header broke the deadlock for Marsa on 64 minutes. Mqabba reacted and were playing more offensively, putting more pressure on their opponents. In the 79th minute, Mqabba equalised when the team of coach Goran Adamovic were awarded a penalty which was confidently converted by Kanta Boubacar. Marsa kept pushing for a winner and were rewarded deep into stoppage time when Jamie Magri Overend’s header from a corner action had the better of James Abela. With six points away from a save spot in the ranking, Mqabba look destined for the Amateur League.
San Gwann 1-1 Marsaskala
The draw between San Gwann and Marsaskala on Saturday afternoon did not really help any of the two in this phase of the league. It was the fourth draw for San Gwann in the Play-Out already, who could have been on equal points with Attard on a safe place, should they have won this match. Marsaskala, although not playing a bad match, failed to build on their emphatic 5-0 Mqabba victory of the weekend before.
San Gwann were quicker out of the blocks in this match as they started offensively, taking initiative and putting pressure on Marsaskala’s defence from the first minute. In fact, San Gwann’s Gianluca Zammit, opened the score in the 17th minute with a shot from inside the box to give the yellows a deserved goal. Marsaskala fought back, and managed to level the score after Rundell Winchester’s cross in the penalty area reached Adrian Carabott who punched home the equaliser.
After the break, both teams kept pushing for a winner but their defences stood firm throughout and therefore the draw could be described as a fair outcome. San Gwann play Marsa, Mtarfa, Mqabba and Swieqi in their remaining outings, while Marsaskala need to get four good results as well versus Vittoriosa, Attard, Qrendi and St Andrews respectively.
Images copyright Joseph Pullicino