Preview Day 16: Valletta vs Sliema Published on: 20-12-2014

The contentious episodes that stained Valletta’s performance in the 3-1 defeat to Hibernians last weekend not only left their title defence bid in tatters but also increased the difficulty of their match against Sliema Wanderers

In the eyes of Ivan Zammit, the Valletta coach, tomorrow’s game at the National Stadium (kick-off 4pm) has become tougher than last weekend’s top-of-the-table clash as the champions are handicapped by the absence of three key players and low on morale after the loss to Hibs left them 15 points off the top.

“This game promises to be more difficult than the one against Hibs,” Zammit told Times of Malta.

“It goes without saying that the Hibs match was very important but for the team’s morale and, in view of what went on in the last game, this match is more complicated.

“We have three key players missing (Ryan Fenech, Jonathan Caruana and Shaun Bajada) and it’s going to be very difficult for us to replace them.

“This is an opportunity for the other players to show what they can do. This is why it’s so important that all the players in the squad pay great attention to what we are doing in training and during games so that, when the opportunity comes, they are prepared.”

Fenech, the Valletta captain, and defender Caruana are out of the equation after both were suspended following their red cards in the Hibs game while Bajada is recovering from a hamstring strain.

Although Valletta are eager to put the Hibs setback behind them, they are still struggling to come to terms with the manner of their defeat.

“We are disappointed because we were playing well but there were a series of events that you just can’t ignore,” Zammit said.

“First of all, the match officials were changed on the eve of the game and I’m not saying this because I don’t have faith in local officials as their level has improved.

“There was also the factor of the mistakes committed by our players and I’m not going to shy away from that.

“There was the linesman who twice signalled that our players were offside when they weren’t. I’ve analysed the match on television and the first offside decision, against Hamza Barry, was wrong.

“These episodes penalised my team. (Marcelo) Dias hit one of our players with his elbow and should have been sent off. The next thing Ryan Fenech makes a tackle on Dias and he’s off.

“I thought I was going to enjoy watching a game between two good teams but these things spoiled it.”

Valletta know well that only a Hibs decline of seismic proportions can haul them back into the title race but Zammit is adamant that the champions will keep fighting.

“It’s important that, as a team, we continue to pull the same rope,” Zammit remarked.

“We need to stay united. It’s our duty to help the players who have made mistakes. That’s the sort of attitude I want from my players.

“Obviously, we can’t do miracles.

“No-one expected us to play the way we have in recent games.”

Kooh Sohna exit

Cameroonian striker Raphael Kooh Sohna no longer forms part of the City squad after the two parties agree to terminate the contract.

Kooh Sohna has now flown back to Cameroon for family reasons.

While Valletta will be going all out for the three points after their upset to Hibs snapped a six-match winning run, Sliema are targeting a second consecutive win after beating Qormi 3-1 .

The Blues will be keen to make amends for their 5-0 rout to Valletta in the first round but coach Stephen Azzopardi was taken aback by suggestions that his team are facing a weakened City side, pointing at his own on-going selection problems.

“The issue is not that we are facing a depleted side, moreso when you take into account our injury situation,” Azzopardi said.

“Valletta will be looking to make a reaction and, after a setback, the response is usually very strong.

“From our side, we want to build on our performances in the last three games. We may have lost to Floriana in the FA Trophy and then against Hibs in the league but we played well in both games.

“In the last match against Qormi, we managed to get a good result and we want to keep it going.”

Azzopardi has been beset by injuries since taking over from Alfonso Greco at Sliema.

Captain Alex Muscat is in the final stages of his rehab from cruciate surgery, striker Michael Mifsud is out after fracturing his fibula and defender Clifford Gatt Baldacchino has aggravated a quad injury.

Winger Trevor Cilia is suspended and Beppe Muscat is also out with a hamstring problem.

On the plus side, Fabio Mangiacasale is back from suspension and defender Andrea Scozzese may also return after missing the Qormi game with a minor injury.

The Sliema coach made no secret of his intention to adopt a cautious approach.

“Naturally, we’re going to be alittle cautious,” Azzopardi said.

“We’re humble enough to recognise that, even if Valletta are missing some players, they are still the stronger team.

“That doesn’t mean that we don’t have an ambition to do well and get a positive result.”

First round: Valletta vs Sliema Wanderers 5-0.

Source -Times of Malta