With Hibernians setting the bar high at the start of the season, the onus was on defending champions Birkirkara to step up their challenge. After a difficult start to the season, Paul Zammitâ€™s troops hit peak form, emulating their rivalsâ€™ feat with a seventh successive victory that pushed them three points clear of Hibernians at the top of the standings albeit with a game more.
An excellent work ethic, tactical discipline and incisive counter-attacking underpinned their performance yesterday as the likes of Shola Shodiya Haruna, Jhonnattann and the tireless Ryan Scicluna causing endless problems to Sliema who looked vulnerable at the back every time the Stripes broke on the counter.
Paulâ€ˆZammit, the Birkirkara coach, continued to rotate his forward line as Jhonnattann started ahead of Frank Temile while Edward Herrera started at right back with Joseph Zerafa pushing down the left wing in a fluid 4-3-2-1 formation. Ryan Scicluna was confirmed on the left of the midfield alongside Paul Fenech and Rowen Muscat.
Alfonso Greco, the Sliema coach, also made two changes with Clifford Gatt Baldacchino deputising for Alessandro Rapino, suspended, as Stanley Ohawuchiâ€™s availability up front was a timely boost for the Wanderers. Birkirkara hit the ground running, starting at a frenetic pace but at first Sliema stood firm. The champions went close to taking the lead after six minutes. Jhonnattann threatened with an inswinging free-kick that Henry Bonello did well to nudge around the post. But three minutes later, the Wanderers were caught out on the counter as Scicluna played in Shodiya on the left who crossed for Jhonnattann who poked the ball into an unguarded net.
Spurred by their fine start, the Stripes continued to show the better ideas with their hard-running strikers bossing the flanks. The Bluesâ€™ initial toils to counter the sharp movement of Jhonnattann continued after 21 minutes when the Brazilian was the provider with another mazy run that ended with the striker dragging a teasing low drive just wide of the post. With one goal down and second best for much of the preceding half an hour, Sliema skipper Alex Muscat tried to pull the strings in midfield. His mazy run took him in the box but the right-back eventually shot into the side-netting. The speed of the counter-attacking Birkirkara forwards had the Sliema defenders chasing shadows in the opening period. And the Stripes stamped their superiority on the match with a second goal on 46 minutes.
Jhonnattann capitalised on a glaring mistake by Gatt Baldacchino who inadvertently headed the ball backwards in the direction of the Brazilian who advanced unimpeded and stab-bed the ball behind Bonello. In the 57th minute, Sliema had an inviting opportunity to drag themselves back into the game.
Paltemio Barbettiâ€™s lofted pass opened up the Birkirkara defence. The ball landed at the feet of Trevor Cilia who darted to his right but Justin Haber closed down the Sliema forward. It was still a one-way traffic as the confident Stripes continued to pummel Sliema. And in the 69th minute, another powerful run by Jhonnattann led to a third Birkir-kara goal.
The Stripes forward made headway on the right before directing a cross towards Alejandro Mendoza who chested the ball down for Nikola Vukanac whose rising effort bulged the net behind Bonello. Eight minutes from time, Sliema won a penalty when Gueyeâ€™s deft footwork in the box unsettled Herrera who reacted by bringing down the Senegalese striker. Substitute Ivan Woods powered his spot-kick past Haber for the Wanderersâ€™ consolation goal but their late comeback fell flat.
Sliema Wanderers: H. Bonello-5, A. Muscat-6, J. Mintoff-5, S. Ohawuchi-5.5, C. Gatt Baldacchino-4, T. Cilia-5, P. Gueye-5.5, P.Barbetti-5, M. Muchardi-5, B. Muscat-5 (65 I. Woods-4), S. Bianciardi-5.
Birkirkara: J. Haber-6, R. Muscat-5.5, A. Mendoza-6, N. Vukanac-6.5, P. Fenech-6, J. Zerafa-7, Jhonnattann-7 (72 R. Camenzuli), E. Herrera-6, S. Shola Haruna-6.5 (77 G. Sciberras), T. Vella-6 (83 D. Toure), R. Scicluna-7.5.
Referee Chris Lautier.
Yellow cards Jhonnattann, Scicluna, Barbetti.
BOV Player of the match Jhonnattann (Birkirkara).
Article by Paul Cachia (Times of Malta)
Photo by Joe Borg MFA