Ħamrun Spartans’ top status in the BOV Premier League will be put under severe test when the Reds take on Birkirkara at the National Stadium on Saturday afternoon (kick-off: 14.00).
The Spartans and the Stripes are without doubt two of the most in-form sides in the top division in the last few weeks and both head into this encounter on the back of three successive league victories.
Ħamrun have a score to settle with Birkirkara who so far have been the only side to have defeated the Reds in the Premier League this season when they emerged victorious 2-0 in the corresponding first-round fixture.
However, coach Mark Buttigieg said that since that match, played on October 20, the Spartans have come a long way and is confident they can stretch their positive run of form of late and preserve their two-point lead over nearest rivals Hibernians.
“Every match in the Premier League is important but when you face teams who are in the upper part of the standings such duels take even more significance,” Buttigieg told The Times of Malta.
“It’s no secret that Birkirkara are passing through a very impressive run of results but even we are doing well as our position in the standings shows. We are aware of their strength and need no reminding of that particularly as our only defeat came against them.
“However, while we will show them the respect that they deserve we are looking forward to this match and try to play to the maximum of our ability and try to expose any fragility they might have. Hopefully, it will be enough to get the win.
“This season, my team have always performed well against the top sides and even in difficult moments the character of the players has always emerged and therefore I’m looking forward to see how my team will perform in such an important match.”
For Birkirkara the match against Ħamrun Spartans represents an excellent opportunity for them to step up their fight for a top-three placing in the Premier League that would earn the club a place in the Europa League qualifiers next summer.
At present, the Stripes are fifth in the standings on 34 points, six adrift of third-placed Gżira United and one behind Sliema Wanderers, but with a game in hand.
“This is a very delicate match for our season,” defender Enrico Pepe said. “Personally, I think that there are more than the three points at stake. If we can win this match we will certainly give a major boost for our quest to secure European football this summer.
“Our major strength this season, apart from our technical qualities, is the great team spirit that exists and that is mirrored on the pitch as everyone fights for each other.
“Unfortunately, our season was hampered by COVID-19 issues with the team forced to serve a mandatory quarantine twice and inevitably hampered in a negative way our performances at the start of the season.
“But despite these problems we kept fighting and managed to turn the season around. We don’t have a star player that is shining through week in week out.
“Our greatest quality is that whoever takes the pitch is always doing a great job and that will be crucial for our quest to reach our objectives.”
Birkirkara coach Andre Paus is set to be without two key players for today’s match as Brazilian defender Oscar Carniello and Argentine striker Federico Falcone are out as they must serve a one-match ban.
First round result: Birkirkara vs Ħamrun Spartans 2-0.