City satisfy their ambitions Published on: 22-02-2018

There were times during the 1998-99 league campaign when it appeared that Valletta’s dream of winning their third successive championship would elude them.

The Citizens lost three times against rivals Birkirkara and drew 0-0 against Rabat. These setbacks threatened to loosen the Citizens solid grasp on the league trophy.

Valletta were plagued with injuries and suspensions throughout the season and after so much success in recent seasons their motivation seemed lacking. In fact, it was probably the great rivalry with Birkirkara that kept the team going. The Citizens started their title defence with six straight victories before they met their main rivals, Birkirkara on October 2, 1998.

This was a game best forgotten by the City faithful. Birkirkara were a class above their opponents as the 4-1 result testifies.

Joe Brincat broke the stalemate on 38 minutes and a minute later, Ivan Zammit doubled their lead. At that point, Birkirkara were unstoppable and Michael Cutajar crowned an excellent firsthalf display with another goal.

A minute into the second period the Citizens suffered another setback when Darren Debono tackled Antoine Zahra and was shown the shortest way to the dressing room. Things went from bad to worse for Valletta when Hubert Suda finished off a classic move started by Brincat.

In the remaining minutes, Valletta tried to raise a cheer and 15 minutes from time they pulled a goal back through a Joe Zarb penalty. Valletta recovered quickly from this setback and with Birkirkara matching them punch for punch they went through another run of seven victories.

However, for the second time that season, their progress was stopped by Birkirkara. The second-round encounter between the two rivals seemed to be heading for a 0-0 draw when Suda grabbed the winner which tipped the balance in Birkirkara’s favour.

This victory lifted the Stripes to within five points of Valletta and with another game still to be played between the two rivals. Therefore, the Stripes needed a slip from Valletta to bring them within striking distance.

Birkirkara, however, spoiled their chances in their very first match of the third round when they dropped precious points in a 1-1 draw against Hibernians.

In the meantime, Valletta kept on winning but on April 2, 1999 they threw Birkirkara a lifeline when unexpectedly they drew 0-0 with Rabat Ajax.

Therefore, when Valletta and Birkirkara met for the third and final time on April 18, five points separated the two leaders.

Birkirkara had a mountain to climb. They not only needed to beat Valletta but they had to keep hoping that the Citizens would stumble in one of their remaining three matches.

It was a tall order but the Stripes did not lose hope and they completed their part of the task admirably. They won a great game 2-1 to put tremendous pressure on their opponents.

The Stripes’ success was the result of unflinching spirit and determination when all looked lost.

Key substitutions

The magic cards were the two substitutions made midway through the second period. Valletta were leading with a Nenad Veselji first-half goal scored by Nenad Veselji. But then, in came Ivan Zammit and Suda and the tide changed.

It was not long before Antoine Zahra scored the equaliser. The joy of the Birkirkara clan knew no bounds and their jubilation increased ten-fold when Suda scored a dramatic winner.

For a while, the championship was thrown wide-open but it was all an illusion because Valletta were not obliging.

The Citizens won their last three matches to clinch their third championship in a row.

Article by Carmel Baldacchino - Times of Malta