Joint-leaders Neptunes and San Ġiljan cross swords in a title showdown on Saturday as the Premier Division comes to an end in an unprecedented fashion.
Prior to the start of the new-look league season, the prediction was that no other side would stop these sporting rivals from facing each other in the title showdown. And so it was.
It has been a solid albeit abbreviated season after the ASA scrapped its usual play-off format.
Neptunes were in scintillating form throughout the preliminaries and in the second phase, to the extent that they dismissed all of their opponents. Yet, their campaign suffered a sting in the tail when arch-rivals Sliema punctured their invincible aura.
San Ġiljan, on the part, have been a nervous outfit for most of the season but still dismissed their opponents with something to spare with their only defeat coming against Neptunes. They were also severely handicapped by the absence of their regular goalkeeper Jake Tanti.
However, they still managed to recoup lost ground on Neptunes and in Ryan Coleiro, they found a reliable custodian.
President Peter Bonavia said that the injury of Tanti had a silver lining for San Ġiljan.
“That negative situation brought out the best in all of us. We are playing better as a unit, defensively, we are better-knitted. We are happy with the performances of Coleiro. To be honest with you, he has
exceeded our expectations,“ Bonavia explained.
“We are aware that today, both teams start on equal footing,” he added.
Heading into the final game, the race for the title is the closest with both teams locked together on 24 points.
“The defeat against Sliema was a bad day at the office,” Neptunes president Matthew Bonello said.
Bonello lamented his team’s profligacy in front of goal which ultimately resulted in his side’s surprise defeat against Sliema.
“That was a strange game. I hardly remember a game in which Neptunes scored just five goals and failed to put the ball into the net for the first 15 minutes of the match. At the end, we had only two conversions out 12 man-up situations,” he explained.
“Hopefully, we see the real Neptunes as from now,” he added.
Bonello thinks that his side may be ranked as favourites considering their individual and collective superiority shown so far this season.
“Arguably, Neptunes with the acquisition of Michael Spiteri Staines have the most complete team in the competition. Our crop of home-grown hopes have gained another year of experience,” he said.
“Yet, San Ġiljan have a very balanced squad. Experience might be on their side. Everything hinges on today’s showing and they might have that psychological edge since they bridged the gap with us.”
On his part, Bonavia shrugged off the tag of an experienced side.
“All our players bar the 35-year-old Matthew Zammit are still very young and the team’s average age is 26,” he explained.
He thinks that today both teams start on equal footing despite his side’s recent negative trend in the Balluta derbies.
The Saints lost the last two matches against Neptunes. Bonavia was left to rue the Italian referee’s game-defining decisions during their last encounter with Neptunes.
“Having said that, I accept the fact that the Italian referees give the ASA more options given the limited pool of Maltese referees. I have full confidence in the local referees and Alex DeRaffaele showed great control during the last match between Sliema and Neptunes,” he said.
A keen contest is therefore anticipated. However, the teams cannot back on the warm support of their faithful fans.
“As a club, we made a proposal to the ASA to have the fans back on the terraces. We were ready to take responsibility for our fans but the ASA decided otherwise,” Bonavia concluded.
Sources close to the ASA told Times of Malta that the association is considering opening its doors to the public for the Knock-Out Final earmarked for September 1 after the health authorities have further relaxed the COVID-19 restrictions.