Birkirkara coach Andre Paus is keeping his fingers crossed his players will be ready to perform when the Stripes return to Premier League action after an enforced one-month break as they face Gudja at the Centenary Stadium this afternoon (kick-off: 2pm).
For the past four weeks, the Stripes have been forced into a mandatory quarantine after eight members of the first team had tested positive for COVID-19, and the team have only returned to full training early this week.
Finding themselves a lowly 14th in the Premier League standings, with only four points to show from six matches, Birkirkara will be desperate for points to start climbing from the lower rungs of the division.
However, their task will be far from straightforward as they face a Gudja United side which has been one of the revelations in the top-flight this season and has seen them pick four wins from their opening eight matches.
They are currently fifth on 14 points, just three adrift of league pace-setters Gżira United and Hibernians.
Paus said that his team’s physical preparation is his major concern, particularly with his team’s impending congesting fixtures list that will see the team play seven matches in the space of a month.
“It’s obvious that my main concern is the physical condition of my players,” Paus said.
“After four weeks of inactivity we are finding ourselves in a situation where we have restarted pre-season training again when you don’t train for two or three weeks, the physical level of the players will go down.
“Our main task in the last few days was to prepare the team for the next month as we can’t increase the intensity in training – that could see players suffer muscle injuries. That is something we cannot afford, given the busy schedule we have.”
COVID-19 has hit hard a number of Premier League teams this season, not least Birkirkara who have seen their first-team squad finish in quarantine for a third time this season.
Paus said that the situation is becoming increasingly untenable and has called on the authorities to further strengthen their coronavirus restrictions and has suggested that every team should undergo testing prior to every Match Day to lower the chances of spreading the virus.
“This is the third time that we have found ourselves in a situation where we had to go into quarantine,” the former Valletta coach said.
“Surely, it has a major effect on the players. I want to make it clear that I’m not using it as an excuse if the result against Gudja doesn’t come our way but I’m talking in general.
“I believe that here in Malta we are gambling with COVID-19. I know other countries, like Holland, where players get tested before every match but here in Malta it’s different. A team only undergoes swab testing if we have players who have symptoms. It looks like here in Malta we only react instead of taking prevention.
“It’s important to remember that for every player you have their close relatives at home and there is a huge risk of further multiplying the cases. I believe that we need to be more stringent and take more care of everyone involved.
“Last season we stopped the championship when there were five cases everyday and today with more than 100 cases every day we are continuing to play… and that leaves me a bit confused.”
The Stripes will be without Italian defender Francesco Verde who must serve a one-match ban.
Despite the troubled situation, Birkirkara are finding themselves in, Gudja United coach Jesmond Zammit is refusing to underestimate the threat posed by the Stripes who, in his opinion, remain one of the best teams in the division.
“This is a delicate match for us,” Zammit said.
“The team is in a very healthy situation in the standings and our goal is to try and pick up more points that would put us in an even stronger position.
“We have performed very well so far despite clear limitations in terms of numbers in our squad.
“But the players have followed my vision since the start and their work ethic and application has been brilliant.
“What impressed me the most is the fact that we have many players who have managed to successfully play outside their usual position. That shows that the spirit in the team is very good.
“But we have not attained anything yet. We have a crucial month ahead of us which will say a lot on what will be our ambitions in the new year so it’s important that we approach the match with the same attitude we have done so far.”
Zammit is boosted by the return of defender Imanol Gonzalez, who missed the goalless draw against Valletta due to suspension.
Hibernians vs Sirens 14.00
Sliema W. vs Lija Athletic 18.15
Birkirkara vs Gudja United 14.00
Gżira Utd vs Santa Lucia 18.15
Ħamrun S. vs Żejtun C. 14.00
Tarxien R. vs Valletta 18.15
Balzan vs Senglea A. 14.00
Floriana vs Mosta 18.15