Sliema rose splendidly to the occasion to stun the more-fancied Neptunes with a diligent display of disciplined waterpolo, chartered by their new coach Fernandez Abella and throw the title race wide open.
The biggest beneficiaries from Sliema’s surprise victory are San Ġiljan who now face Neptunes in a title showdown this Saturday on equal points.
The Reds started wastefully on their two man-up sets. These were followed by a penalty miss from Steven Camilleri before Sliema exploited their first scoring opportunity through Jerome Gabarretta.
Exchanges were tight with Sliema closing up excellently when not in possession. Neptunes could not find their usual touch and kept messing up their passes and finishing badly.
Jamie Gambin broke free to lob above Alan Borg Cole early in the second session.
Neptunes lost more chances on similar occasions until Steven Camilleri made it 2-1 with a sizzling shot.
Matthew Mifsud shot from long-range to surprise Borg Cole and put his team 3-1 ahead a minute before the end of the second session.
Sliema were clearly putting up better but Camilleri again gave his team some hope when he reduced the gap to 3-2 soon after.
But that all changed in the next quarter. Jordan Camilleri scored to level matters with Jake Muscat finally converting a man-up to put his team in front for the first time in the match.
Two minutes into the last session, Gabarretta again capitalised on Neptunes’ frailties on left to make it 4-4.
Sliema sensed that the Reds’ energies were draining and Gambin lobbed beautifully to put his team ahead. Soon after, Liam Galea netted from an angle to extend the lead to 6-4.
Neptunes’ top scorer made it 6-5 with a minute to go. It looked set for a close finish.
At this point, Fernandez Abella called a time-out to pep up his forces. They held the upper hand till the end.
In a match that had little at stake except for statistics and minor positions in the table, Marsaskala managed to break their duck in terms of points in the Premier Division, thus setting up a face-off with Valletta for the fourth spot.
Pierre Borg watched passively from the bench as Birzebbuga stalled after the change of ends with veteran Paul Privitera leading Marsaskala’s charge with a late hat-trick.
In the First Division, Sirens warmed up for their showdown with Exiles with a 24-4 dismissal of Ta’ Xbiex. Ken Erdogan and Jacob Sciberras scored six goals apiece to avoid a repeat of the crossover’s shock result when Ta’ Xbiex beat Sirens 4-3.
That proved costly for the Northenders not so much for ending on the wrong side of the scoreline, but for giving Exiles the opportunity to create agap at the top of the standings. The side, who will emerge victorious on Saturday will take the First Division title.
(4-1, 6-1, 7-2, 7-0)
Sirens: G. Galea Curmi, M. Grech 2, K. Erdogan 6, J. Sciberras 6, J. Zerafa Gregory 2, G. Farrugia 2, M. Sciberras 1, I. Riolo 1, J. Napier, T. Said 1, L. Caruana, M. Azzopardi 2, O. Gauci, L. Grech Carr 1.
Ta’ Xbiex: R. Greco, Z. Cutajar, J. Pace Mizzi, J. Cassar, M. DeMarco, J. Saliba, J. Cutajar 1, K. Borg, S. Azzopardi, E. Schembri 2, D. Rizzo 1, D. Galea Mule.
Referees S. Licari, A. Torneo.
(0-1, 1-1, 0-2, 1-3)
Birzebbuga: M. Rossi, J. Farrugia, N. Cassar, D. Pace Lupi 2, D. Incorvaja, P. Serracino, S. Vassallo, M. Curmi, M. Bonnici, M. Borg, R. Spiteri, S. Fava, L. Abela.
Marsaskala: J. Micallef, JC Cutajar 2, A. Camenzuli, P. Privitera 3, G. Sammut, L. Grixti, K. Navarro, M. Manara 1, S. Micallef, L. Felice 1, J. Ciantar, M. Carani, A. Muscat.
Referees P. Balzan A. Roberti
(0-1, 2-2, 2-0, 1-3)
Neptunes: A. Borg Cole, J. Muscat 1, L. Calleja, G. Pace, M. Castillo, J. Spiteri Staines, S. Camilleri 3, J Camilleri 1, J. Abela, M. Spiteri Staines, A. Fenech, S. Gialanze, A. Bugeja.
Sliema: N. Grixti, J. Gabarretta 2, L. Galea 1, M. Meli, B. Cachia, N. Schiavone, M. Mifsud 1, J. Brownrigg, J. Gambin 2, Z. Mizzi, N. Bugelli, Z. Sciberras.
Referees A. DeRaffaele, A. Torneo.