My heart belongs to Valletta Published on: 26-04-2016

Jonathan Caruana

Last season, Jonathan Caruana was taken off on a stretcher after suffering a knee injury inside the opening four minutes of Valletta’s 3-1 defeat to newly-crowned champions Hibernians on the last day of the championship.
Fast forward 12 months and Caruana is facing a completely different scenario.
Awarded the captain’s armband by Valletta coach Paul Zammit last summer, Caruana will have the honour of lifting the BOV Premier League trophy at the end of Valletta’s final game against rivals Hibernians this Saturday.
The Citizens wrapped up their 23rd top-flight title last weekend after a hard-earned 2-1 victory over Balzan on Saturday, coupled with Hibs’ 2-1 defeat to Birkirkara the following day, gave them an unassailable four-point lead the top.
“This is my fifth Premier League title but my first as captain of Valletta,” Caruana told Times of Malta.
“It will be a big honour for me to lift the league trophy but the feeling is the same… the most important thing is that we have achieved our objective.”
The sight of a former player hoisting the league trophy as captain of a rival club will only add to Hibs’ disappointment as Caruana was one of their own before switching to Valletta in 2010.
Having signed a new five-year deal last summer, Caruana feels at home with Valletta.
“My heart belongs to Valletta, 100 per cent,” the Malta powerhouse said.
“I have always been treated with respect by the club committee members, coach, team-mates and the fans. My wish is to see out my career with Valletta.”
Like most of the football followers, Caruana expected the title race to go down to the wire after Hibs had managed to pull to within a point of Valletta before last weekend’s fixtures.
Sunday’s game between Hibs and Birkirkara was another emotional rollercoaster for Caruana who left the National Stadium a few minutes before the end with the score still 1-1 only to dash back up the stairs of the Millennium Stand after realising that the Stripes had won.
“To tell you the truth, I thought that the title would be decided in the last game,” Caruana, who turns 30 in July, said.
“I watched the game between Hibs and Birkirkara… it was a balanced encounter. At 1-1, I thought it was over but I was wrong. Birkirkara have reached peak form at this late stage of the season.
“I left the stadium around the 88th minute and a few moments later, Birkirkara scored. Since I was still in the Millennium Stand at the time, I went back up to the hospitality box but the game had finished.
“It was an emotional moment as winning the championship is a massive achievement.”
Despite Valletta’s enduring status as one of the heavyweights of Maltese football, optimism about their title chances was in scant supply last summer after Zammit, back for a second spell as head coach, had no option but to overhaul his squad following the departures of key players like Ryan Fenech, Steve Borg and Hamza Barry.
Their Europa League exit at the hands of unfancied Welsh side Newport AFC did little to allay scepticism but, slowly but surely, Valletta raised their game to embark on an 18-match unbeaten run that fuelled their title charge.
“In summer we had a lot of changes and a new coach,” Caruana said.
“In the early weeks, we didn’t think that we could challenge for the title but then we hit top form in the December-January period.
“As our squad lacks depth, we struggled a bit in the closing stages of the season as you can’t stay at your peak from December to April. There was a slight drop in form but I must say that the young ones who came in have done a great job.
“The coach and the technical staff have been instrumental.
“Our biggest strength is the unity among the players. The atmosphere in the dressing room is excellent.”
Long regarded as one of the top defenders in Maltese football, Caruana endured a difficult start to the season after suffering a recurrence of the knee injury he had sustained on the final day of the previous campaign but he came back stronger.
“The start was tough because after only four games, I suffered a knee injury which kept me out for eight weeks,” he said.
“Thank God, I managed to re-cover from that setback and had no repercussions thereafter.
“Winning the league makes up for all the pain and frustration caused by injuries. I want to dedicate this success to my family, especially my girlfriend for her patience, my team-mates, technical staff, club officials and the supporters.”
Hibs’ defeat to Birkirkara on Sunday sparked spontaneous celebrations in the capital on Sunday night and the title party will continue throughout the week before reaching a climax on Saturday evening.
The downside of accomplishing the title mission with a game to spare is that the players might drop their guard in the final game but Caruana hopes that this will not be the case.
“For us, it will be a game like the others,” Caruana, who has 36 Malta caps, said.
“We will concentrate on the match and celebrate afterwards. The game will be our top priority.
“There is no pressure on us now but this situation can have contrasting effects on our mindset.
“You can be tempted to relax and take it easy, which is not good, but on the other hand it can also spur you to express yourself with greater freedom and show your best which is what I’m hoping for on Saturday.”
Caruana has no doubts that Valletta are worthy champions because they have been the most consistent side.
“We deserve to win the league after such a difficult season,” Caruana observed.
“This championship was the toughest to win because there were other valid teams who could take points off the big sides.
‘With seven foreigners in each team, the standard improved.”

Source - Times of Malta