A lot will be at stake when rivals Valletta and Hibernians face off at the National Stadium this Sunday (kick-off: 14.00).
In what is turning out to be one of the most exciting and lopsided domestic championships in recent years, the weight on every game becomes heavier week in week out.
Halfway into the season, Hibernians look set to take this season’s title challenge to the wire as they sit second on 39 points, just two adrift of leaders Ħamrun Spartans.
However, this year’s title race does not feature usual suspects Valletta as the Citizens lie 10th. A dismal start to the season has seen them chalk up just 24 points in 17 outings, with six draws and five losses.
By Valletta’s standards, this is an unacceptable position and with newly-appointed coach Toze Mendes at the helm, the 25-time Malta champions are determined to start inching up their way the ladder.
The Portugese coach claimed a win over Balzan on his debut before ending on the losing side against Ħamrun Spartans and Gżira United, conceding five goals without managing to find the opponents’ net.
On Wednesday, Valletta fired blanks for a third straigth match following a goalless draw against Sliema.
But Mendes heaped praise on his team after producing a quality display.
“In terms of quality, this was our best peformances because we were more inspired on the field,” Mendes told the Times of Malta.
“The team is starting to follow my ideas and the only way that this could happen was through the games because given we had to serve a quarantine, our calendar became more congested so we did not have time to practice a lot during training.
“Nonetheless, the players are working very hard and they have a strong belief, and if we keep going like this, we can overcome our hurdles and achieve our targets.”
Against the Blues, Valletta adopted a high-pressing game and this allowed the match to ebb and flow in an end-to-end manner.
The Citizens dominated the game at times, underlining Mendes’ style of play.
“The identity of our game should be the domination,” he said.
“This means that we have to be focused throughout our games to execute this plan to perfection.
“However, while we always have a plan for the game, the match, on the other hand, always has a plan for us and unfortunately things do not always go the way we want.”
On the other hand, Italian tactician Stefano Sanderra is steering Hibernians to another championship race, for yet another year
Composure is key
Under his guidance, the Paolites have distinguished themselves as an attractive team to watch, with their flowing football orchestrated by their mixture of experienced and youth players.
Make no mistake, the younger members of the team have already vast experience at this level, with Jake Grech and Jurgen Degabriele putting up staggering numbers this season – 19 goals in all competitions between them.
The January transfer window brought a valuable addition to the club in Gilmar Ribeiro, on his third stint at the Paolites.
Gilmar, who will be wearing the number 49, was in fine form for Sliema in the first part of the season, with four goals and four assists in 14 games.
“As soon as Gilmar integrates with our system, he will be a key player for us because he is a great player,” Sanderra said.
“Even the other newcomers will give us a major boost because this is a crucial part of the season for us.”
Forty goals in 18 games played highlights Hibernians’ offensive prowess, and Gilmar’s return will help them add plenty of goals to that tally.
Nonetheless, Sanderra remains calm on his team’s prospects, as he wants his players to think game by game and see where their performances lead them.
“We have to remain calm and composed, take it game after game and always put up the best performances in order to achieve the best results,” he explained.
“In the conditions that we are playing in, this is a very uncertain season but I believe that if we are ready for anything, we can continue to work and manage to reach our objectives.
“The game against Valletta will be an intruiging one because the table does not make justice for the qualiy of players they have in their squad.
“More importantly, they have acquired more self belief after their draw against Sliema and that means that we have to be at our best.”
Żejtun C. vs Birkirkara 17.00
Floriana vs Sta Lucia 21.00
Lija Ath. vs Balzan 14.00
Mosta vs Gżira Utd 18.00
Tarxien R. vs Sirens 14.00
Sliema W. vs Senglea Ath. 18.00
Valletta vs Hibernians 14.00
Ħamrun S. vs Gudja 18.00