Heat is on for Valletta Hibs Published on: 25-02-2014

Rivals Valletta and Hibernians are under some pressure to emerge victorious from their first Championship Pool encounter tomorrow at the National Stadium (kick-off 20.00) after both dropped points in their last outings.
A 1-1 draw against Sliema Wanderers has augmented the heat on Valletta who are now three points behind leaders Birkirkara with nine games remaining.
Hibs are third, a further four points adrift, after a 2-1 reverse against the resurgent Mosta not only undermined their fading title hopes but also put their European chances in jeopardy as Sliema and Mosta have closed in on the Paolites.
On Sunday, Valletta were left to rue their wastefulness in front of goal, particularly in the first half, but coach Andre Paus was generally pleased with his side’s showing.
“We played well, our organisation was good,” Paus told Times of Malta.
“We had opportunities to make it 2-0 and we only gave away one chance in the first half. I thought we controlled the game and the players worked hard.
“Sliema are not a bad team. I believe that we are on the right way. Sometimes you are lucky in football but you can also be unfortunate.
“As for the result, when you win, you’re always happy but we didn’t lose against Sliema. We did our job but games throw up certain circumstances you can’t control.”
The Sliema stalemate felt more like two points lost than one gained for Valletta, moreso after Birkirkara had seen off Balzan to temporarily move four points clear at the top.
Paus is not overly concerned.
“We are three points behind Birkirkara but there are nine games left to play,” Paus said. “We must continue what we’ve been doing in the last few matches and improve other aspects of our game.
“We still have to play Birkirkara twice, so the three-point gap is not a big problem at this stage. Now we have another game on Wednesday and it’s important that we repeat the good things we did in the first half of our game against Sliema Wanderers and try to win.”
Despite Hibs’ steep decline, Paus is bracing himself for another stiff test.
“I’ve watched Hibs,” the Dutch coach said. “After Birkirkara and Valletta, there is Hibs and Sliema in the table. Hibs are also a good team.
“It’s another tough game for us.”
Paus may make a couple of changes from Sunday’s game with Shaun Bajada likely to miss out if his probable suspension for four cautions is confirmed by the MFA.
Hibs’ stuttering form has been largely blamed on the defensive instability caused by the January departures of Rodolfo Soares and Marcelo Dias. This was evident on Saturday as Hibs conceded the first goal in their defeat to Mosta when centre-half Jonathan Pearson was being seen by medical personnel after pulling his hamstring.
“We expected a better perfor-mance (against Mosta),” Hibs coach Branko Nisevic said.
“We started the game well but we lost a player (Pearson) and con-ceded a goal at the same time. That was a big blow for us.
“In the second half we improved and created some chances but it was not enough.”
Nisevic warned that no team will have an easy ride in the Cham-pionship Pool.
“Until the end of the championship, we are swimming in rough waters because every match is tough,” he remarked.
“Every team in the Cham-pionship Pool is a credible opponent. It promises to be a very balanced campaign.
“We need to approach every game with high motivation and fight until the end.”
Unbeaten in the first round, Hibs were touted as genuine title contenders but such optimism has vanished after they failed to keep the pace with the other rivals.
“After all that happened during the January transfer window, we sat down to discuss the situation and agreed to rebuild the team, give more chances to young players and fight for Europe,” Nisevic said.
Although Hibs go into tomorrow’s clash with Valletta as outsiders, Nisevic hopes that his team will show a great desire to compete and hold their own against their rivals.
“Valletta are coming from a not-so positive result but we’re coming from a defeat,” Nisevic said.
“I hope that my players will be more motivated than the Valletta players to win this game .”
Apart from Pearson, Nisevic has no selection problems with Johann Bezzina back from suspension.
Previous results: Valletta vs Hibs 2-3, 2-1.

Source - Times of Malta