After a day of intense off-pitch action, during which Sliema and Neptunes were locked in a war of words over COVID-19 swab testing, the tit-a-tat affair continued in the water.
It was the Reds who had the last laugh at the expense of the Blues in a dramatic shoot-out which was resolved 12-11 in their favour after a 9-9 all score at the end of the match.
Neptunes’ perfect lift-off contrasted sharply with that of the Sliema who messed up their first man-up situation and allowed the Reds to storm to a 4-0 lead inside the opening eight minutes.
The Reds struck twice through Jeremy Abela and Jordan Camilleri before Steven Camilleri lost an opportunity to make it 3-0 after Nicholas Grixti blocked his effort from a penalty.
That was left to his brother Jordan Camilleri before Luke Calleja made it 4-0. Sliema were not yet dead. In the second session, they reduced the gap to 3-5 with goals from Zach Mizzi, Jerome Gabaretta and Nicholas Bugelli. In between, Jake Muscat had temporarily restored Neptunes’ four-goal advantage.
The third session was make-or-break for Sliema. Jacob Sciberras was on hand to make it 5-4 but Gabriel Pace immediately restored the Reds’ two-goal buffer. Nicholas Bugelli scored a penalty for Sliema before Jake Muscat scored a gem of a goal with a distant shot to make it 7-5.
Michael Spiteri Staines, hanging on two fouls, was thrown back into water and gave Sliema further impetus. Gabarretta levelled matters on 7-7 seconds before the end of the session.
Sliema were now back in the hunt and Bugelli gave them the lead for the first time in the match. Neptunes recovered some of their earlier focus as Camilleri made it 8-8.
Spiteri Staines scored his second goal for an 9-8 lead but squandered a golden opportunity to give his side a two-goal cushion when Alan Borg Cole blocked his penalty to set up a nervy finale. Muscat restored parity on 9-9 to send the match to penalties.
It was 12-11 with the last penalty taken by Mark Meli being saved by keeper Alan Borg Cole amid the jubilation of his team-mates to set up a semi-final against Exiles.
Earlier, Sirens took off solidly, helping themselves to a 3-1 lead, only to fall into a mental rut.
That advantage shrunk until the bold Birżebbuġa team went 5-4 ahead in the third session.
Sirens, on Monday guided by Dale Dowling, recovered some of their earlier focus to condemn their gallant opponents to a three-goal defeat.
Sirens, engineered chiefly by Matthias Azzopardi, scorer of a poker and Gianni Farrugia, author of a hat-trick, will meet newly-crowned champions San Ġiljan in the semi-finals.
(3-1, 1-2, 3-2, 4-3)
Sirens: O. Gauci, J. Ciantar 1, K. Erdogan, G. Mellilo, J. Zerafa Gregory, T. Said, L. Falzon, I. Riolo 1, J. Napier, M. Cutajar 1, M. Sciberras 1, M. Azzopardi 4, G. Galea Curmi, G. Farrugia 3,
Birżebbuġa: M. Sladden, J. Farrugia, N. Cassar 2, D. Pace Lupi 1, P. Serracino, S. Vassallo, D. Cutajar 4, M. Bonniċi, R. Spiteri, S. Fava, L. Abela, B. Grech 1.
Refs M. Dalli, A. DeRaffaele.
(4-0, 1-3, 2-4, 2-2; 3-2)
NEPTUNES: A. Borg Cole, J. Muscat 3, L. Calleja 1, G. Pace 1, S. Busuttil, J. Spiteri Staines, S. Camilleri, J. Camilleri 3, J. Abela 1, M. Farrugia, S. Stellini, S. Gialanze, B. Busuttil.
SLIEMA: N. Grixti, J. Gabarretta 2, L. Galea, J. Sciberras 1, M. Meli, B. Cachia, M. Spiteri Staines 2, J. Soler, J. Brownrigg, Z. Mizzi 1, N. Bugelli 3, Z. Sciberras.
Refs: M. Angileri, P. Balzan.
Penalty sequence: J. Camilleri (N) scored 10-9; Brownrigg (S) missed 10-9; Abela (N) missed 10-9; Gabarretta (S) scored 10-10; Pace (N) scored 11-10; Bugelli (S) missed 11-10; Muscat (N) scored 12-10; Spiteri Staines (S) scored 12-11; S. Camilleri (N) missed 12-11; Meli (S) 12-11.