Ħamrun Spartans’ ambitions of winning their first title after almost three decades will be put under serious test on Saturday when the Premier League leaders take on third-placed Gżira United at the National Stadium (kick-off: 6pm).
The match against the Maroons kicks off a crucial two-week period for the Spartans as following tomorrow’s fixture, Mark Buttigieg’s men will be up against their nearest challengers Hibernians the following weekend.
At present, Ħamrun Spartans lead the standings on 50 points, two clear of Hibernians with Gżira United sitting in third place a further two points adrift.
Stefan Sultana, the Ħamrun Spartans assistant coach, told The Times of Malta that although the match against Gżira United cannot be billed as decisive in this season’s title race, however, a win for his team would push them closer to their ambition of winning the league title.
“For us this is a very important week where we play two very important league matches against our closest challengers Gżira United and Hibernians as well as Trophy Last 16 tie against Gozitan side Xagħra United,” the former Ħamrun Spartans striker said.
“It’s clear that this match cannot be billed as decisive given that there are still another eight matches still to be played so everything can happen.
“However, a positive result against both Gżira and Hibernians will push us closer towards our goal of winning the title.
“Still, if the results will not go our way I think that the race will still remain open as there are a lot of points at stake. But there’s no hiding that winning against your direct rival will be a huge boost.”
The Reds are set to be without their flank player Karl Micallef who must serve a one-match ban but otherwise Mark Buttigieg can bank on a full complement.
Sultana, the all-time leading scorer in the Premier League, said that one encouraging factor in the team was the fact that each time they faced a top team, the players always produced a strong performance.
“Gżira United are without doubt one of the most in-form sides in the division this season as they are coming from an impressive run of eight wins in a row,” Sultana said.
“However, we too are passing through a very strong run of form. Added to that, everytime we face a top side the players have always rose to the occasion and delivered, as happened against Birkirkara a few weeks ago. So, hopefully, we can deliver again this weekend.”
On his part, Gżira United coach Darren Abdilla shared Sultana’s view that tomorrow’s match was important but not defining for either side’s title ambitions.
However, he said that all the pressure was on Ħamrun Spartans who in his view were the favourites given the sound investment they have done this season.
“This is an important match against the favourites to win this year’s league title,” Abdilla said.
“Win or lose, I don’t think that it would have a defining twist on both team’s title hopes as there are still 24 points up for grabs and both teams still have to play against other very good sides so things can still change.
“For us this will be a great opportunity to test ourselves against a team who have built a very strong side with a lot of investment and it’s no surprise that they have been leading the league standings since the start of the campaign.
“I think that all the pressure is on Ħamrun Spartans as after forking out thousands of euros to build this team with high-profile Maltese players and quality overseas players they surely will not want to miss out on the league title having arrived this far.”
Abdilla said that tomorrow’s match brings against each other two teams who have managed to preserve their football identity throughout the season.
“We may play different tactical configurations but it’s true Ħamrun Spartans and Gżira United are similar in a way as they are very attacking-minded teams who have managed to preserve their philosophy throughout the season,” Abdilla said.
“Mark Buttigieg deserves all the praise because he has done a great job at Ħamrun. He has stuck to his football philosophy and you enjoy seeing his team play as they are always at the front-foot and rest on the attacking prowess of Jorge Ailton Soares, Joseph Mbong and Franklin Sasere.
“We too share that philosophy that our best means of defence is to attack and we base our play on Martin Davis, Maxuell Samurai and Atajic. Certainly, this augurs well for Saturday to provide a very entertaining spectacle.”
First round result: Gżira United vs Ħamrun Spartans 2-2.
Gudja U. vs Tarxien R. 17.00
Sirens vs Lija A. 21.00
Birkirkara vs Floriana 14.00
Gżira U. vs Ħamrun S. 18.00
Sta Lucia vs Mosta 14.00
Hibernians vs Żejtun C. 18.00
Balzan vs Sliema W. 14.00
Senglea A. vs Valletta 18.00