This season’s Challenge League has been a battle from the start, both between the teams, as well as the COVID-19 pandemic.
With Lija Athletic’s match against Rabat Ajax tonight, the league breaks up for a short Christmas recess.
This follows an entertaining first round of play, particularly in Group A, which saw Pembroke Athleta go top, level on 24 points with Naxxar Lions after a direct encounter at the Centenary Stadium on Friday which ended in a 2-1 win for the new leaders.
After ten matches played, Pembroke now lead the standings as the only side still unbeaten so far – seven wins and three draws.
Prior to Friday’s match, Naxxar have been the team to beat after a promising start to th new campaign. However, after losses against Marsaxlokk and Pembroke, they will be relieved to be taking a breather before the league restarts in January.
On the other hand, Pembroke, coming off the back of two consecutive draws before their match against Naxxar, rallied ahead to end the year on a high and coach Jacques Scerri believes his players deserve to enjoy the win.
“I think this was the performance of the season,” Scerri told the Times of Malta.
“It was a match that we were well prepared for and the fact that we were playing a top of the table clash meant there was more motivation.
“I believe credit should go to the players, who despite all the difficulties and the past two draws, continued to believe and today, we answered any critics by bringing home those three points.
“I think it was a deserved win because we had a lot of chances throughout the game and if there was anything negative about this game, this was that we could have closed it off earlier.
“But I’m happy for the players and for the three points.”
Asked about what would be the plan to stay put at the top of the table, especially after last season’s disappointment which saw Pembroke stuck in the Challenge League despite an
impressive season and a second-placed finish, Scerri believes it is much too early to predict anything.
“I always say that the league is a marathon, not a sprint. So, at this stage, all we have is a snapshot,” Scerri explained.
“The league has a lot left, so we must take things game by game where every encounter is a final for us.
“It’s too early to say anything more, especially because we are in a very tough group – there are so many strong teams. So, the only thing I can say is that we have to work more. Today, the players deserve to enjoy the win but after this, we go back to work.”
Pembroke took over the game against Naxxar from the start, and with the first chance of the night after three minutes, an unmarked Neil Pace Cocks controlled the ball outside the area, hit a cannon of a shot and smashed the ball into the top of the net.
It was not the best of starts for Naxxar as they looked disjointed, with goalkeeper Omar Borg called in to save the day on numerous occasions, particularly around the 15-minute mark when he managed to block Erikys Ferreira’s header from a pinpoint corner, and a Weverton Gomes shot after the Pembroke forward dribbled past three defenders inside the area.
After the break, it was more of the same for the two sides, as an outstretched Borg stopped another Gomes shot.
Naxxar had a golden opportunity to level proceedings on 54 minutes when Samuel Saldanha swerved past Pembroke defenders, laying the ball off to Joel Ellul but the latter skied his shot.
The side would go on to rue this missed attempt as Pembroke went further ahead on the hour-mark.
Gomes got his deserved goal when from another corner, the ball dipped behind the beaten Naxxar shotstopper, with the Brazilian forward ready to head into the net.
As if it wasn’t bad enough for Naxxar, Pembroke were awarded a penalty four minutes later after Ferreira was hit in the face inside the area.
However, luck was not on Ferreira’s side this time as his shot from the spot hit the post, Jonathan Bajada hitting the rebound wide of the mark.
Late in the game, Naxxar rallied to find a way back and substitute Jean Leon Cassar was close as an effort from a loose ball opportunity went over with a minute of regular time to go.
However, he was not to be denied, three minutes into injury time, as the young midfielder spoiled Pembroke’s cleansheet.
After Ryan Cassar’s goalmouth shot was blocked impressively by goalkeeper Miguel Bonnici, the ball fell to Cassar who made no mistake this time to hit straight at goal with Bonnici unable to reach the ball.
VITTORIOSA STARS 1 MARSAXLOKK 3
SAN ĠWANN 0 MQABBA 2
LIJA ATHLETIC 2 ST GEORGE’S 0
MELITA 0 RABAT AJAX 0
ŻEJTUN CORINTHIANS 2 VITTORIOSA STARS 3
Lija Athletic vs Rabat 21.00
ZEBBUG RANGERS 3 MARSA 1
ST ANDREWS 2 QRENDI 0
LUQA ST ANDREWS 1 MGARR UNITED 1
TARXIEN RAINBOWS 1 FGURA UNITED 4
SWIEQI UNITED 2 PIETA HOTSPURS 2