Preview Day 17: Valletta vs Naxxar L Published on: 09-01-2016

Valletta vs Naxxar L

Valletta’s status as leaders of the BOV Premier League bears testament to their amazing progress since the start of the season but coach Paul Zammit is refusing to sit on his laurels.

Having wrapped up their 2015 commitments with a rousing 3-2 victory over champions Hibernians, the Citizens resume their title quest with a seemingly straightforward fixture against the struggling Naxxar Lions tomorrow, only four days after easing past Xewkija Tigers 3-1 to set up a fourth-round cup clash with Birkirkara.

“If you look at how we ended the year, it is clear that there has been progress since the summer not because we are top of the league but on the back of our performances and the continuity the team has shown in the last few months,” Zammit told Times of Malta.

“We need to maintain this momentum.

“We have a very busy schedule between now and May and the most difficult part of our season is about to begin.

“I always say that reaching the top is easier than staying there. Now we need to show our strength, both in terms of quality and personality.

“The first round has demonstrated that there are no easy games because the majority of the teams can offer a tough challenge.”

While, on paper, Valletta should encounter little trouble to overcome a Naxxar side devoid of confidence and weakened by the departure of a clutch of foreign players, Zammit insisted that he was only focusing on his team

“I’m demanding maximum concentration from my players,” Zammit added.

“I’m only interested in my team.

“At the start of the season, I told my players that if we play at 99 per cent of our collective strength, we become an average team and that hasn’t changed.”

Zammit can’t name his strongest line-up for tomorrow’s match at the National Stadium as defender Ryan Camilleri and Italian midfielder Claudio Pani are suspended.

The City coach is also concerned about the fitness of midfielder Roderick Briffa and defender Jonathan Caruana who received heavy knocks during the FA Trophy win over Xewkija.

On the plus side, Zammit can count on Brazilian defender Diego Balbinot who made his Valletta debut in midweek.

Explaining the reasons behind his move for Balbinot, who had a short spell with Hibs in 2011, Zammit said: “We had to sign another central defender to cater for the needs of our tactical strategy.

“Whenever we had a defender missing, we had difficulties to cope.

“We had been close to signing Balbinot last summer but it was not possible then. We managed to finalise an agreement with Balbinot before the start of the January transfer window and I’m pleased that he has joined our team.

“Diego is not match fit as the league he was playing in finished in November but his physical condition is optimal as he has done a good pre-season. Obviously he needs time to integrate in the squad but he has a lot of experience and is a natural-born leader.

“His addition certainly gives me more options from a tactical point-of-view.”

While Balbinot’s arrival has increased Valletta’s strength-in-depth, not so can be said of relegation candidates Naxxar Lions who have fallen on hard times.

The Lions have had to part with five foreigners, namely Emiliano Lattes, Richard Cardozo, Mandinho, Luca Lodetti and Thomas Sarina to slash their wage bill.

So far, they have brought in two new players, Serbian midfielder Nikolas Tasic, formerly of Balzan and Pietà Hotspurs, and Namibian youngster Ennio Hamutenya, the latter signed on loan from Valletta.

To compound matters for coach Clive Mizzi, Spanish wing-back Jose Godar and Serbian defender Blazo Rajovic are both suspended for tomorrow’s game.

With a decimated squad at his disposal, Mizzi knows that his team need something of a footballing miracle to halt the leaders’ march but he has urged his players to show character.

“It’s a difficult game,” Mizzi said. “Valletta are going through a bright patch whereas our results and performances of late have not been very positive.

“We have lost a few players and this has further undermined the quality of our squad, albeit the foreigners who left had come in for criticism for their performances.

“We will now put our faith in the club’s youngsters but it’s important that they show enthusiasm and willingness to make the grade.

“The experienced players also have a big role to play as we strive to achieve the right chemistry in the team and prepare ourselves for the tough challenges ahead.”

Source: Times of Malta