This game, the final act of season 2013-14, was emblematic of Valletta’s year.
It embodied their remarkable league campaign in the sense that they encountered a few setbacks and scares along the way only to draw on their famed resilience to reach their ultimate objective.
Galvanised by their come-from-behind title triumph, Valletta were gunning for the double yesterday as they faced Sliema Wanderers in the final of the FA Trophy.
Inevitably, the champions came into the cup showdown with a spring in their step, their confidence reinforced further after just two minutes, the time it took Lateef Elford-Alliyu to fire them ahead.
The bulk of the 6,700-odd crowd inside the stadium expected Valletta to canter through but such expectations were off the mark as Sliema refused to lie down.
Their endeavours contributed in making the contest more intriguing and hard-fought as the Blues, chasing a a record 21st success in the competition, surged forward in search of an equaliser.
Valletta’s extraordinary effort on Saturday was always going to catch up with them as they began to betray signs of tiredness.
With Matias Muchardi driving forward from midfield and Stanley Ohawuchi using his speed and agility to flit into menacing positions, Sliema fought back.
It was all hands to the pump for Valletta whose task was further compounded when they lost two key players, Alan Da Silva Souza and Roderick Briffa to injury before half-time, but fighting spirit and tenacity are traits the champions and their roaring fans have in abundance.
They rode their luck at times but, as the old saying goes, luck favours the brave.
Not for the first time this season, Ryan Fenech was the epitome of bravery, his performance strengthening his claims for the Malta FA Footballer of the Year award.
Jonathan Caruana again impressed at the back, Irakli Maisuradze gave everything, also when dropping to right-back while Shaun Bajada was at his most effective as a wide midfielder, an inspired switch from coach Andre Paus after substitute Hamza Barry had been given his marching orders.
Valletta did enough to quell Sliema’s attacks and complete a double, their first since 2001 and the first club to achieve this feat since Sliema in 2004.
While all the attention was on Valletta and their party, it was hard not to feel sympathy for Sliema. They had been the outsiders after a somewhat disappointing season in which they finished fifth in the league but the Blues, who qualify for the Europa League as cup finalists, had a go at the champions as they pursued their first trophy since 2009.
Their efforts fell just short but they certainly deserved the applause of their supporters at the final whistle.
Before the game, Sliema captain Alex Muscat presented a memento to veteran striker Ivan Woods. Described by the announcer as one of the most exemplary players to grace Maltese football, Woods brought the curtains down on his competitive career yesterday.
Although heavily outnumbered, the Sliema supporters were more numerous than usual, a big plus for the most decorated club in Maltese football.
A blast from the past preceded the game as the protagonists of the 1991 FA Trophy final, won by Valletta after extra-time, were called on to the pitch. These included former Malta goalkeepers Reggie Cini and Ernest Barry, Martin Gregory, Joe Zarb and Joe Camilleri.
By way of underlining his faith in youth, Paus handed a starting berth to Llywelyn Cremona, one of the few homegrown players in Valletta’s squad.
The other changes in the City team saw Briffa and Elford-Alliyu replace the suspended Steve Borg and Abdelkarim Nafti.
The alterations were limited to personnel as Valletta’s tactical module was the usual 4-2-3-1. Paus exploited Briffa’s versatility as the Malta international filled in for Borg at right-back.
Sliema coach Alfonso Greco had combative midfielders Paltemio Barbetti and Mark Scerri shielding the back four while up front Trevor Cilia and Ohawuchi played either side of Woods, the central striker in the Blues’ 4-3-3 formation.
As in Saturday’s title clash, it took Valletta less than two minutes to draw first blood.
And, once more, the danger stemmed from the right wing, precisely from the feet of Da Silva Souza who sidestepped his marker before laying the ball back for Briffa. From the latter’s through-pass, Elford-Alliyu had time and space to turn before prodding past Glenn Zammit, the Sliema goalkeeper.
Sliema looked rattled but they beamed signs of improvement as the game drifted past the fifth minute.
Pouncing on a half-clearance, Muchardi tried to curl the ball goalwards but his effort was deflected away for a corner.
On 11 minutes, Sliema served up a reminder of their attacking ability. They were unlucky not to score as Barbetti’s speculative chip from outside the box completely surprised Nukri Revishvili, the Valletta goalkeeper, but the ball bounced off the crossbar.
The danger for Valletta refused to abate as the loose ball fell to Muchardi who volleyed wide with only the keeper to beat.
Midway into the first half, Briffa did well to put his body in front of the advancing Ohawuchi in the box after Cilia had dragged in a teasing cross from the right.
At the other end, Cremona’s lob was high after he got on the end of Bajada’s free-kick.
Sliema highlighted their improvement when Ohawuchi, released by Muchardi, darted past the stationary City defence only to blast high from an inviting position.
Instead of turning the screw after their early breakthrough, Valletta stepped their foot off the accelerator while Sliema, driven on by the dynamic Muchardi, plucked up courage.
The Argentine’s perseverance was to the fore when he managed to squeeze his way through a posse of defenders but his flick was blocked by Fenech who had again tracked back to support the defenders.
Ten minutes from half-time, Scerri was wide with a shot from outside the penalty area.
Valletta’s task look to have been further complicated as Briffa hobbled off after picking up a calf strain and Da Silva also came off after sustaining an injury.
Edmond Agius and Barry came on with Maisuradze switching to right-back.
Detecting Valletta’s struggles to maintain their early momentum, the Sliema fans raised the volume.
The Wanderers forced two corners on the cusp of half-time and from the second, Clifford Gatt Baldacchino directed the ball into the goalmouth but Woods flicked wide.
Sliema should have levelled five minutes into the second half. Racing past the back-tracking Maisuradze, Ohawuchi was clear as he reached Woods’s clever ball but the Nigerian’s grounder ended inches wide after taking a slight deflection.
A sight of relief coursed through the City players and fans.
Barry strode forward through the middle but his howitzer ended in no man’s land. The sight of a midfielder, Maisuradze, patrolling the right flank invited Sliema to attack from that side.
The incoming Jacob Borg almost gifted Valletta a goal as his attempt to control the ball from Luke Dimech’s long cross only served to free Elford-Alliyu but the latter’s effort was repelled by Zammit.
Sliema’s spirits rose further when, 20 minutes from time, Barry was shown a straight red card by Pisani after the Gambian appeared to aim a kick at Gatt Baldacchino.
Barry’s dismissal brought back memories of Njongo Priso’s red card in the 2009 FA Trophy final defeat to Sliema.
Paus responded by throwing on Ian Azzopardi for Cremona with Bajada moving into midfield.
Zammit needed two touches to tame a set-piece cross-shot from Denni who probably played his last match in a City shirt yesterday.
With 14 minutes left, Greco played his last card, unleashing another forward, Abubakar Bello-Osagie, who has just recovered from a knee injury, for Cilia.
The Sliema coach made another positional change, hurling Gatt Baldacchino upfield with Barbetti dropping further back.
Seven minutes from time, Zammit kept Sliema in the game when blocking Fenech’s free-kick.
Bajada then fired wide, after good work by Agius, as ten-man Valletta began to cause Sliema more problems on the counter.
The game opened up, Barbetti going close with a sweetly-struck drive that took a deflection.
Fourth official Jurgen Spiteri indicated three minutes of stoppage time, prompting scores of City fans to climb on the perimeter wall before running on the pitch in celebration at the final whistle.
Source: Times of Malta
VALLETTA - N. Revishvili, J. Caruana, R. Fenech, R. Briffa (E. Agius), S. Bajada, L. Cremona (I. Azzopardi), L. Elford Alliyu, A. Da Silva Souza (H. Barry), D. Dos Santos, I. Maisuradze, L. Dimech.
SLIEMA W. - G. Zammit, A. Muscat, M. Scerri, S. Ohawuchi, G. Zammit, C. Gatt Baldacchino, I. Woods (A. Xuereb), T. Cilia (A. Bello Osagie), P. Barbetti, M. Muchardi, B. Muscat (J. Borg), S. Biancardi.
Date: 01.05.14 Time: 15:00 Venue: National Stadium
Yellow Cards: I. Woods, P. Barbetti, S. Biancardi, M. Muchardi (S) S. Bajada (V)
Red Cards: H. Barry (V)
Scorers: L. Elford
Referee: C. Pisani