It has been a long wait, but domestic competitive football finally makes its return to Malta this weekend when the opening matches from the BOV Premier League being played between Saturday and Monday.
It’s no understatement to say that this season’s championship will be held in extraordinary circumstances due to the COVID-19 pandemic that has hit hard the Maltese society, not least the sporting industry.
The Malta FA was forced to implement a strict medical protocol to kick off this season’s national competitions, with matches being played behind closed doors with teams and officials asked to follow strict guidelines to ensure the safety of everyone involved.
After the Malta FA Council ruled at the end of last season that no team will be relegated from the top-flight and the top two teams in the First Division being promoted, this year’s championship has been expanded to a record 16 teams.
This year’s championship kicks off on Saturday evening with a two-match programme at the Centenary Stadium when newly-promoted team Żejtun Corinthians take on at Sta Lucia at 5pm and later on, Mosta face Gudja United at 9.15pm.
Champions Floriana finally kick off their title defence tomorrow night when they face Gżira United at the National Stadium (kick-off: 9.15pm) in one of the main games of Match Day 1.
The Greens will head into this match with their morale sky-high after their heroics at Windsor Park in Belfast on Thursday night where they managed to overcome the challenge of Linfield and win 1-0, to book their place in the third qualifying round of the Europa League.
“This is a great victory for us in Q3 which enables us to proceed to a ‘semi-final’ against Flora Tallinn,” coach Enzo Potenza said after the match.
“I would like to thank my team that never stops to amaze me, both from a physical and tactical point of view as well when it comes to the need of suffering in key moments.
“We have prepared for this match like a top team thanks to the support of our club committee and certainly deserved this victory.”
The Floriana coach will surely be concerned by the fact that the team have just 48 hours to recover for tomorrow’s clash against Gżira United but the is no doubt that the confidence Thursday’s win has instilled in the team will be an added boost for the Greens.
Potenza described this year’s Premier League championship as one of the toughest for many a year.
“This year’s championship will be far more difficult than previous years for many reasons,” Potenza said.
“First of all, the fact that the number of teams has increased to 16, have inevitably increased the number of matches played, with teams facing the prospect of playing 37 or 38 matches. Therefore it will be very important to have a good squad depth.
“Added to that it’s hard to say who will be the toughest opponents as all 16 teams have significantly strengthened their ranks. I must mention in particular teams like Ħamrun Spartans, Sliema Wanderers, Hibernians, Mosta, Balzan and Sirens who look to be far stronger than last season.
“On the other hand you have the usual suspects like Valletta, who are always very competitive, with Birkirkara and Gżira United who will sure be giving us a tough challenge in our attempt to successfully defend the title.
“Therefore, it is important for us to keep our feet firmly rooted to the ground and try and approach one game at a time. It’s a long and hard season but I’m confident that we are capable of having our say this season.”
Floriana are set for a tough baptism of fire against a Gżira United side who went through a complete overhaul this summer.
Darren Abdilla is their new first team coach and they have brought in significant new blood in their squad as they look to finally mount a serious league challenge.
Their biggest signing was Malta defender Steve Borg, who joined the club from Valletta, as his experience in winning major titles could prove decisive in the clubs quest of ending their trophy drought.
Valletta and Birkirkara are set to be two other major challengers for the league title and will face each other on Monday at the National Stadium.
The Citizens were left disappointed last season when seeing the title taken from their grasp and awarded to their neighbouring rivals Floriana following a ruling by the MFA Council.
During the summer, the club brought back Jesmond Zerafa back as first-team coach in the hope that he can repeat the feat of leading his hometown club to league glory as he had managed in his previous spell between 2011 and 2012.
However, Valletta have had a disappointing start to the season as they crashed out of the Europa League to unfancied side Bala Town, of Wales, and surely Zerafa will expect his players to bounce back with a positive start to their campaign.
Birkirkara, on the other hand, kept the majority of the squad that did so well in the second part of last season.
Their decision to go for continuity could turn out to be their trump card this season as they kick off the campaign with a settled side, contrary to last term when they were off to a disastrous start.