Football will finally make a return on the Maltese islands on Monday evening when the 2021-22 BOV Premier League resumes with the highlight of the day being the highly-awaited derby between Valletta and Floriana who face each other at the National Stadium (kick-off: 7pm).
In the past few weeks, the football community has been battling the threat of COVID-19 with the majority of the clubs afflicted by a surge of positive cases and quarantine issues that left the team’s preparations in disarray.
On request of the Malta Professional Football Clubs Association, the Malta FA Executive Board decided to postpone the resumption of its national leagues by a further two weeks, moving the first matches to this week.
Derbies between Valletta and Floriana are always strongly-felt by both sets of fans given the huge rivalry that exists between the two neighbouring clubs.
But today’s clash takes even more significance in both teams’ quest to secure a place in the Championship Pool, given that there are seven teams grouped within just six points of each other, battling for the remaining five spots and join runaway leaders Hibernians in the top section of the division.
At present, Floriana are second in the standings on 23 points, eight adrift of leaders Hibs, and three clear of Valletta.
For Valletta coach Toze Mendes, the derby against Floriana has special significance not only in terms of his team’s aspirations but also on a personal level.
In fact, since he has taken charge of the capital club, the Portuguese has yet to lead the Citizens to a derby victory and has made it no secret that he is desperate to turn the tide.
“This is a derby. It’s a game everybody want to play and is eagerly awaiting,” Mendes told the Times of Malta.
“It will be a very important game for us and for our fans. The first round result was very disappointing for us and we are determined to make sure it doesn’t happen again and we will try to get the best possible result possible.
“All the games are very important but given where we stand so far in the season, with all teams facing the final run-in to make it into the Championship Pool, this is a massive match for our hopes. There are very few points separating each team so all matches will have an impact on the teams’ final standing.
“This should add more fire in my players to win the main and remain firmly on course to reaching the Championship Pool.”
The Valletta coach will be unable to field signing Andrea Zammit, who recently joined the club from San Ġwann, as his registration has not been completed yet.
COVID-19 had a huge impact on the team’s preparations ahead of the championship restart and the Valletta coach said that while he agreed with the MFA’s decision to postpone the league by two weeks, he felt that the fixtures schedule starting on the week of January 17 should have been planned better.
“As all clubs, Valletta FC battled hard with the COVID-19 cases we had at the club with several players in quarantine and we only had a full squad for training since last Wednesday, so the preparation was far from ideal,” Mendes said.
“I believe that the MFA should have taken more notice of the players’ welfare and in my opinion, the first programme should have been played at the end of the week so that they would give players three or four days more to prepare from a physical point of view.”
Mendes’ thoughts were also shared by Floriana coach Gianluca Atzori who agreed with Mendes that the players should have been given more time to gain better physical fitness.
“I fully agree with what the Valletta coach said, the players should have been given a bit more time to prepare better,” the Floriana coach said.
“I have no doubt that, given the circumstances, this will be reflected in the performance of both sets of players as they are not in an ideal condition.
“But there is nothing we can do, the decisions have been taken and we just need to carry on.”
Looking ahead to the match against Valletta, Atzori admitted that it’s a very important match given the huge rivalry that exists between the two clubs.
“Every derby is very important,” he said.
“I understood more how much this match means for our fans in the corresponding first-round fixture and we have a duty to ensure we can deliver another win for them.
“But beyond the importance of the derby, this is a very important match in our race for a place in the Championship Pool. If you look at the standings all teams, apart from the runaway leaders Hibernians, are close to each other so only the team who will go on a consistent run of results will make the top six.”