Valletta: H. Bonello-6, S. Malano-6, R. Fenech-6 (84 N. Pulis), M. Piciollo-7 (79 S. Dimech), K.Nwoko-6.5, J. Borg-6, E. Pena Beltre-6, R. Muscat-5.5 (79 T. Caruana), L. Aguirre-5, M.A. Alba-6 (90 E. Sala), M. Jovanovic-6.5.
Balzan: V. Vranes-5.5, A. Loof-6, S. Arab-5.5, M. Duric-6.5, P. Fenech-6 (61 S. Cipriott), S. Pisani-6.5, S. Bezzina-6 (61 A. Effiong), M. Johnson-6, U. Ljubomirac-5, M. Sanoh (5 A. Andrejic-5.5), Weverton-6.
Referee: Darryl Agius
Yellow card: Bonello, Borg, Arab, Pisani, Pulis,
BOV player of the match: Matteo Piciollo (Valletta)
Antonio José Cardoso Mendes began his Valletta reign with a hard-earned 1-0 victory over Balzan to lift the club’s spirits. The victory moved Valletta up to eighth in the table with two games in hand. Miguel Alba scored the only goal of the game from the penalty spot.
It was Valletta’s first match in over a month because of a Covid-19 outbreak in the citizens’ camp.
On the pitch, new Valletta coach Antonio José Cardoso Mendes kept faith with the 4-2-1-3 tactical approach often utilised by his predecessor Gilbert Agius but effected some changes in personnel.
Enmy Pena Beltre started on the right of Valletta’s defence and Ryan Fenech received a starting role detailed to provide cover to the defence. Santiago Malano was granted licence to roam behind the attacking trio formed by Matteo Piciollo, Kyrian Nwoko, and Alba.
Balzan welcomed back in the fray Serbian goalkeeper Vukasin Vranes who skipped the match against Tarxien Rainbows, while Samir Arab stepped in for Stefan Dimic in the heart of the defence. Mark Miller entrusted his team’s attacking responsibilities to Weverton and Moussa Sanoh.
Yet the Dutch striker’s contribution lasted only a couple of minutes due to an injury and was replaced by Aleksa Andrejic.
The City’s build-up frequently looked to take advantage of the strikers’ one-versus-one dribbling abilities. In particular, the positions of Piciollo and Alba were flexible allowing Valletta to build their actions with these two players as one of them often dropped in between the defensive midfielders to gain possession of the ball.
Valletta made a bright start and Nwoko’s fierce shot tested Vranes on 8 minutes, which served as a warning of what was to come.
In fact, the Lilywhites broke the deadlock albeit in controversial fashion. On 42 minutes, referee Darryl Agius let play continue after Matteo Piciollo was pulled down inside the box but Kyrian Nwoko was in a better position to score. However, the referee sounded his whistle erroneously while the ball was still in play as it had not yet crossed the line, prompting him to reverse his decision and point to the spot. Alba struck his penalty low in the right corner.
Piciollo was predictably the main threat for Balzan and after 54 minutes, had a shot from the edge of the area which flew just wide.
Two minutes after the hour, Miller decided to put Sean Cipriott instead of Paul Fenech who took off his shirt in dismay and stormed straight into the dressing room. Alfred Effiong replaced Steve Bezzina who left the pitch injured.
With more offensive set-up, Balzan pressed forward with more urgency. On 68 minutes, Andrejic’s header from Steve Pisani’s corner was hooked off the line by Jean Borg.
Eight minutes from time, Valletta could have killed the game off when Pena Beltre sprinted into the box from the right before squaring for substitute Shaun Dimech, who outsprinted the onrushing goalkeeper, only to see his effort cleared off the line by Augustine Loof.