The 2021-22 BOV National Challenge League will kick off at the Centenary Stadium on Friday when Żejtun Corinthians against Lija Athletic.
With no less than 22 participants, for the first time since season 1954/55, Malta’s second tier Championship will be split up in two groups.
With two promotion slots up for grabs and three relegation spots in each section, it promises to be an interesting affair. Like in nearly every single season during the last two decades, Malta’s second football level is very competitive and always brings about surprises.
It is clear that Żejtun are aiming for a quick return to the Premier Division. The Corinthians adapted well to their new surroundings last season, but were unlucky eventually to get relegated, despite plenty of positives.
Żejtun signed four new Brazilian players for various positions and added some experience in the back line with Lesley Cassar, Alan Abela and Jurgen Farrugia, three established players, while David Xuereb (ex-Senglea) and Clyde Borg (ex-Gżira) will both have his first experience in the Challenge League.
Żejtun’s opponents on Friday, Lija Athletic, can also be counted amongst one of the promotion contenders.
In attack, Lija might have lost their prolific striker Erjon Beu to Hibernians on loan, they managed to replace the deadly Albanian with Lydon Micallef, who scored 21 Challenge League goals in 20 appearances for Marsa last season, Kurt Borg from Mqabba and Brazilian Roberio from Żejtun.
Last season’s revelation side Pembroke Athleta should be also expected to challenge for promotion to the Premier Division. They might have lost creative midfielder Pedrinho to Lija Athletic and top scorer Abdul Abdeen to Gudja, but gained with the signing of international goalkeeper Matthew Grech from Żebbuġ, Serbian Stefan Jankovic who played in the Australian A-League and Brazilian playmaker Weverton from Balzan.
James Brincat arrived from Gudja United and Jurgen Suda joined from Żejtun, another two important players to the forward line.
Veteran Jonathan Bondin joined from Marsa to bolster their defence and on midfield they signed experienced midfielder Neil Pace Cocks from Pietà Hotspurs.
San Ġwann, Marsaxlokk, Naxxar Lions and St George’s look to be the outsiders this season.
San Ġwann lost some quality defenders with captain Christian Gauci, who joined Valletta, and Owen Spiteri who was signed by Floriana, but always do well with the next generation waiting to get their chance.
St George’s and Marsaxlokk both have nearly a completely new team, while Naxxar Lions has proven to be a hard nut to crack for any team at this level.
Melita welcomed back Edward Herrera, while they managed to keep their talented team of last season intact, they might be in for surprise as well. Ż
At the end of the season, Mqabba, Vittoriosa Stars and Rabat Ajax will be happy with consolidating their NCL status.
In this section its is very clear that there is one hot favourite which is Marsa. The club left no stone unturned to add quality in their already star-studded side, with new coach Vincenzo Potenza, ex-Floriana, at the helm of a crop of talent but above all experience.
Names like Amadou Samb, Ryan Fenech, Steve Bezzina, Valdo Alhinho. Siraj Arab and Gonzalo Virano need no introduction for Maltese football followers. They will be the team to beat this season.
At this stage, Pietà Hotspurs and Tarxien Rainbows might mingle in the promotion hunt. Pietà, under new coach Paul Gatt, added some experience with Daniel Zerafa and Dylan Grima, while the Blues signed two exciting Japanese players who added a lot of quality to their side.
However, they lost captain Neil Pace Cocks, who has been with the Hotspurs since his childhood, to Pembroke Athleta.
Steve D’Amato’s Tarxien Rainbows have set their sights on a quick return into the Premier. With an ideal mix of youngsters and experience, they might be a good bed for promotion this season.
They did a top signing with Ryan Grech (ex-Sirens), while Brazilians Wellington Petinha and Ricardinho and Nigerian Saturday Nanapere are also new to the team.
The majority of the players of last season remained with the team, including Matthew Tabone, Daren Falzon, Luke Sciberras, Brandon Muscat and goalkeeper Jurgen Borg. A fine squad indeed.
Despite losing playmaker Clive Gauci to Gżira and goalkeeper Matthew Grech to Pembroke, Żebbuġ Rangers should be included as well with the teams who could join the promotion hunt.
Swieqi United and Fgura United, could be a surprise as well this season.
Both teams have consolidated the squad and set introducing homegrown talent as their goal, but pre-season results have indicated that they both have competitive squads.
Qrendi, Luqa St Andrew’s and debutants Mgarr United are outsiders with consolidation their status as primary goal, while Senglea Athletic and St Andrews basically have one aim and that is survival in the Challenge League.
PLAYING ON FRIDAY
17:00hrs Zejtun Corinthians v Lija Athletic (Group A, Centenary Stadium)
21:00hrs Senglea Athletic v Tarxien Rainbows (Group B, Centenary Stadium)
PLAYING ON SATURDAY
17:00hrs San Ġwann v St George’s (Group A, Centenary Stadium)
17:00hrs Naxxar Lions v Mqabba (Group A, Victor Tedesco Stadium)
21:00hrs Swieqi United v Fgura United (Group B, Centenary Stadium)
21:00hrs Żebbuġ Rangers v Pietà Hotspurs (Group B, Victor Tedesco Stadium)
PLAYING ON SUNDAY
17:00hrs Vittoriosa Stars v Pembroke Athleta (Group A, Centenary Stadium)
17:00hrs Melita v Marsaxlokk (Group A, Victor Tedesco Stadium)
21:00hrs St Andrews v Marsa (Group B, Centenary Stadium)
21:00hrs Luqa St Andrew’s v Qrendi (Group B, Victor Tedesco Stadium)