Preview: Day 22 vs Balzan Published on: 08-02-2014

The second-round encounter between Valletta and Balzan, at the Tedesco Stadium, has taken on an extra edge as its outcome is likely to have a decisive impact on the race for the sixth and final Championship Pool spot.

There is a lot at stake for Balzan who have done remarkably well to haul themselves back into contention for a top-six berth after taking maximum points from their last four league games.

Given that they only lead Naxxar Lions by one point, Balzan know that only a victory over the high-flying Citizens this afternoon (2pm) would guarantee them a place in the Championship Pool, regardless of the result of today’s match between Naxxar and Hibernians, but their task is a daunting one.

The Reds, piloted by Jesmond Zerafa, are facing a Valletta team determined to consolidate the benefits of their crucial 2-1 win over title rivals Birkirkara with another victory which would leave them only one point off the top at the start of the Championship Pool, provided that the Stripes win their match against Vittoriosa Stars.

Andre Paus, Valletta’s newly-appointed head coach, wants his team to adopt a game-by-game approach.

“We have to take it game by game,” Paus, who made his debut last weekend, told Times of Malta.

“This is important for us. We will try to win every game and improve our performance.”

Paus declared himself pleased with Valletta’s resilient showing in Sunday’s hard-earned win over Birkirkara.

“They (players) all worked hard and I’m satisfied about that,” Paus said.

“We needed the three points, it was very important for the team. The players know that we can improve a lot.”

The prospect of ameliorating their title chances with a win over the champions, who were on a 13-match winning streak before last weekend’s defeat, will have instilled great motivation in the Valletta players.

Balzan are not in the same bracket as Birkirkara but Paus is not taking anything for granted.

“Every game starts 0-0,” he said. “We’re not thinking much about our opponents as we prefer to concentrate on our game.

“We need to be motivated and show the right focus. The players know that they have to give their all in every match. We can win or lose but the most important thing is that we give our maximum.”

Although Valletta’s success over the champions has gone a long way towards restoring optimism in their title chances, Paus is not looking too far ahead.

“I don’t think about the title,” the former Vitesse reserve team coach said.

“It’s all about the next game. We need to think about winning our next fixture.

“Balzan are in a position where they can make it into the top six, so this is also a very important game for them. There are high expectations for both sides.”

Paus, who is working in tandem with Mark Miller, is not expected to make significant changes from the 2-1 win over Birkirkara. Defender Luke Dimech and Brazilian forward Denni are recovering well but they will not be involved today.

English forward Lateef Elford-Alliyu is still sidelined with injury.

Balzan, who edged out Tarxien 3-2 in their last outing, will be without defenders Andrew Scicluna and Steve Bezzina, suspended, while Italian midfielder Fabio Vignaroli is doubtful.

Although coach Zerafa hopes that Balzan will secure a top-six place without having to wait for the result of the Naxxar-Hibs game, he accepts that his team are facing a tall order.

“Games against Valletta are always very difficult,” Zerafa said.

“The Championship Pool issue depends on us and others.

“This is our last game of the first phase and we will do our best to get the result we need so that we don’t have to rely on other teams to reach our goal.”

Balzan would be assured of a Championship Pool berth if they win this afternoon.

A defeat coupled with a win for Naxxar would see the latter through. In case of a draw in the two games or defeats for both Balzan and Naxxar, the former will take the final top-six place.

A decider would be needed if Balzan lose to Valletta and Naxxar draw against Hibernians.

Whatever the outcome of their battle with Naxxar, Zerafa has been lifted by his team’s strong comeback after their top-six hopes looked as good as over up to four weeks ago.

“I’m delighted, this is like a dream for us considering the position we were in a few weeks ago,” Zerafa said.

“Everyone thought that we were doomed to play in the Relegation Pool but the players refused to give up. They have been amazing.”

Balzan caused a mini-surprise in November after holding Valletta to a one-all draw in their first-round clash but Zerafa sees no correlation between the two fixtures.

“This is another game,” Zerafa said. “The scenario is different. The first-round game is in the past. Our next match against Valletta is more important than the previous meeting.”

First round: Valletta vs Balzan 1-1.

Source - Times of Malta