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KO final provides grand finale to troubled season

Photo: Wally Galea

It took eight long months, but today after the BOV KO finals, the ASA officials could finally look back and exclaim, “we did it.”

As the officials celebrate a happy conclusion, the waterpolo clubs look understandably left frustrated by a season full of hiccups.

The season was suspended in March, resumed in July with ‘Covid-19’ adaptations, stopped for two weeks in August, introduced a shorter format but still, the championship final was delayed by another postponement.

“The season has been dragging on for such a very long time, we stopped four times and it’s mid-October and still not over. We are mentally drained,” commented Dorian Pisani, coach of San Ġiljan.

So, in the context of what has happened – San Ġiljan vs Neptunes – is the final everyone wanted to re-ignite the usual hype for the epilogue of a troubled season, even if played on the mundane behind-closed-doors platform. The contrast in form between the two sides could not have been more marked.

So, the team from St Julian’s come into the contest as strong favourites, having won their 11th title unbeaten as Neptunes are battered, bruised and in need of silverware.

“To call Neptunes underdogs might be stretching it a little because in Stevie Camilleri, they have the best talent in local waterpolo – together with our Matthew Zammit – with over 14 years’ experience abroad, Jordan is the brain of the team, Jake Muscat is a rising star and Alan Borg Cole is a national team goalkeeper. The others are fillers.

“They never die and this is a cup tie. On the day, you will go down in the water either be the better team or the unlucky team. Hopefully, we will be the better side and take the cup home for our supporters,” Pisani said.

While Neptunes laboured victories over Sliema and Exiles, after receiving a bye to the semi-finals, San Ġiljan annihilated Sirens in what turned out to be a shooting practice against the young Sirens goalkeeper Owen Bugeja.

“We struggled to regain full fitness after the 15-day quarantine. In water sports, it is so easy to lose the momentum. We asked to play Sliema (KO quarter-final) before San Ġiljan (final) because both teams were isolation but were told it was not possible. We had our ups and downs against Sliema and Exiles, lost some good scoring chances and things became more complicated for us,” Neptunes coach Jovan Popovic said.

“People tend to forget that we suffered a similar fate few weeks back when our U-20 side were locked down. San Ġiljan have six homegrown hope who form part of the senior squad. For three weeks, we couldn’t train properly. With just 6 players, one cannot do drills, train man-up situations and have practice matches. It seems to be the norm for San Ġiljan to play against all odds,” Pisani rebutted.

The absence of left-hander Nikolai Zammit had a telling effect on the Neptunes’ game and Popovic’s tactical tinkering did not leave the desired effects. He had to sacrifice the burgeoning partnership between Steven Camilleri and Jake Muscat who has been the find of Neptunes’ season.

“I had to move Steven out of position, he is our captain and took his responsibilities and executed my instructions to the letter. Jordan had just recovered from a serious injury. This year, things did go as planned and all players acted professionally. I cannot really ask more from my side. The KO cup is still up for grabs and we will give it our best shoot,” Popovic said.

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