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Birkirkara women expect tougher challenge as they launch title defence against Swieqi

Birkirkara women’s team have claimed their first golden star after lifting their 10th domestic championship last season.

The Stripes went all 18 games unbeaten as they won 16 of them while a late draw in their league finale againt Swieqi United preserved their run of 69 games without a defeat as they matched the all-time record previously set by Hibernians.

Should they start the new 2022/2023 campaign on a positive note, Birkirkara will take control of the record while continue to establish their status as the team to beat in the Maltese game.

A well-deserved status but a one which will put further responsibility on the Birkirkara’s players this season as they expect the other teams to provide a tougher challenge this year.

The Stripes will be led by coach Jose Borg, back from his short stint in Canada at FC Manitoba, who has replaced Melania Bajada.

Borg could not have wished a better start to his reign as Birkirkara coach having guided the Stripes to a famous win over Glentoran of the Northern Ireland in the UEFA Women’s Champions League – the first Maltese victory in this competition.

Birkirkara will head into the new season as hot favourites to retain the title but Borg has called his team not to rest on their laurels as he is aware of the other clubs’ progress.

“I think that every team has made some interesting summer signings and that shows they are willing to take a step forward,” Borg told the Times of Malta.

“We are expecting a serious challenge for the title from Swieqi United who have made some important acquisitions, both in coaching and players’ personnel.

At the same time, you must always keep an eye on other clubs such as Hibernians whose squad is composed of several Malta internationals, both at senior and youth level, and who can also give us a run for our money.”

Borg pointed also to Mġarr United and Raiders Lija as two clubs who are always difficult to beat and who will make this championship very interesting this season.

For their game against Swieqi, Birkirkara might have a few important faces absent following injuries sustained during the women’s international window earlier this month.

Coach Borg does not consider the Swieqi tie as a decisive one for the league title, but he still says it has a lot at stake given how close the title race might be come April.

“It’s just the opening game of the season so it won’t determine where the title will go, but it could serve as an indication of the strength of both teams,” Borg explained.

“It is ideal that you start with a win because that boosts your team but on the other hand, if you lose that means that you have to chase your opponents this early in the season.”

During the summer, the Stripes brought in Canadian forward Sofia Iaderosa. The 2003-born player is at the end of experiences in Canada, United States and Spain and has already featured with the Stripes in the Champions League.

In addition, Birkirkara also signed Italian duo Marta Grosso and Gaia Milan who will bolster the team’s midfield department. Last season, both Grosso and Milan were at Serie B club Tavagnacco where they teammates of Malta international Nicole Sciberras.

Swieqi, on their part, are looking to step up their challenge for the title after placing second last season with 38 points in 18 games – 12 points behind Birkirkara.

On the final day of the season, they came close to halt Birkirkara’s unbeaten run while they reached the domestic cup final before losing to the same opponents.

The Owls made some important changes to their squad ahead of the new season. They appointed Dutch coach Judith Kuipers.

She was a player in the top-flight of the Netherlands with the likes of SC Heerenveen – whom she also coached – and Vv Alkmaar.  She also coached the Cooks women’s national team during the 2019 Pacific Games.

Swieqi’s busy transfer activity included the arrivals of former Birkirkara defender Mariah Sciberras and experienced midfielder Jasmine Vella Turner from Mġarr.

They also signed three new foreign players which will join defender Rafanny Mendoza and forward Fernanda Peinado who were already with the club last season.

These are Ghana players Cynthia Konlan and Rebecca Atinga, who both played in the recent U-20’s Women’s World Cup, and former Portuguese top-flight player Tatiana Dabney.

Among their domestic pivotal players in their squad is captain Dorianne Theuma, named MFA Women’s League Player of the Year last season for a record eighth-time in her career.

The opening day of the 28th Maltese women’s league will continue with two other games in San Ġwann vs Mġarr United and Mtarfa vs Hibernians, both pencilled for Wednesday.

Mġarr looked set to be Birkirkara’s main antagonists for the title before a poor streak of results saw them finish the 2021/2022 season in third place.

The Greens will remain under the guidance of coach Michael Mangion while adding some new personnel to their team in the likes of defenders Rebecca D’Agostino and Chantelle Grech, midfielder Kathryn Ellul and forwards Yulya Carella and Kelly Agius Pace.

Last season’s top two scorers Francesca Chircop (20 goals) and Brenda Borg (19) are also part of the team for this campaign.

Gżira United and Malta U-21’s player Jean Paul Attard will remain in charge of the San Ġwann women’s team after his debut last season.

In their maiden appearance in this league last year, San Ġwann managed to record four points including a victory against Mtarfa.

Their summer signings include former Hibernians player Rebecca Calleja, Kirstie Vella from Raiders Lija and Mġarr United duo Nicole Camenzuli and Yasmine Spiteri.

In the other game, Hibernians will mark their return to the senior women’s game against Mtarfa.

The Paolites, all-time Maltese league winners with 12 titles with the last won in the 2015/2016, have appointed Keith Gouder in his return as Hibernians’ coach.

Gouder is familiar with the Paolites’ environment having won all domestic competitions during his first spell and has strengthened the team with the hope being competitive from the get-go.

Some of the notable acquisitions by Hibernians are Maltese internationals Nicole Sciberras and Martina Borg, both at the back of a five-year spell in Italy.

Young talents Chloe Ann Ellul, Amy Busuttil, Kayleigh Chetcuti and Iulia Mifsud have also made their way to the Paolites while a large number of ex-Kirkop United players have also opted to join Hibernians such as goalkeeper Raisa Costantino, defenders Celine Galea and Ingrid Psaila, midfielder Sarah Urpani and forward Rodianne Zerafa.

Another intriguing arrival at the club is American forward Alexis Espitia who last January joined Swieqi and scored six goals.

Simon Spiteri will remain as coach of Mtarfa as they enter their third season in the senior women’s league.

Mtarfa clinched their first ever victory last season as they finished their championship with four points – a win and a draw against San Ġwann.

They have added a few new faces to their squad including goalkeeper Maria Abdilla (former Kirkop United), Malta U-19’s Jeanelle Falzon – also from Kirkop United – and two foreigners in Rasvita Sluckute from Lithuania and Spaniard Marta Garcia Caballero.

Raiders Lija will sit out on Matchday 1 as they will be the first team to serve a bye this season. They launch their league commitments against Mtarfa, next week.

THIS WEEK’S FIXTURES

TUESDAY

Swieqi United vs Birkirkara, Centenary Stadium – 8.30pm

WEDNESDAY

San Ġwann vs Mġarr United, Centenary Stadium – 8.30pm

Mtarfa vs Hibernians, Mġarr Ground – 8.30pm

MD1 bye: Raiders Lija.

Photo: Domenic Aquilina.

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