Haruna 41; Camenzuli 85;
What a show of resilience.
Down to nine men after 66 minutes, Birkirkara were up against it in their clash with title hopefuls Hibs but they stood resolute in the face of the gathering adversity to earn a deserved 2-0 win that all but handed the title to Valletta.
Six points behind the leaders, Hibs had to win this game to keep their hopes alive and raise a modicum of pressure on Valletta but Mark Miller’s troops failed to rise to the challenge, turning in an insipid display that contrasted sharply with the gutsy showing of their opponents.
Birkirkara had beaten Hibs in their last meeting but they came into this match on the back of successive defeats that looked to have tarnished their morale after a long unbeaten run.
Fears that the Stripes may have surrendered their renewed confidence and fighting spirit were allayed as they put in a terrific effort to withstand Hibs’ onslaught, first with 10 men for about 34 minutes and then with nine men for the last 24 minutes of the game.
They ran and harried with coach Paul Zammit’s tactical changes after each of the two red-card moments proving him right as his team retained shape and composure.
Gareth Sciberras was immense at the back, winger Ryan Camenzuli defended and attacked on the wing and Shola Shodiya Haruna never stopped running up front.
It was undoubtedly a deserved win for Birkirkara who maintained their challenge for third spot.
More importantly, the result of this match has virtually decided the title issue as Valletta will be confirmed champions today if they avoid defeat to Sliema.
Mark Miller named an unchanged line-up from the 1-0 victory over Floriana.
Luis Edison ‘Tarabai’ kept his place at the tip of Hibs’ 4-1-4-1 formation with Edward Herrera and Andrew Cohen supplementing their team’s attacks from the wings and Clayton Failla and Jackson Lima pushing through the middle.
Deprived of defender Rodrigo Pereira, suspended, Zammit deployed Sciberras at centre-half alongside Nikola Vukanac as Ryan Scicluna was moved in from the wing to the middle where he flanked Rowen Muscat.
Haruna took up a wide role on the right with Shawn Bajada operating behind Moises Avila-Perez in a 4-2-3-1 module.
The opening 20 minutes were marked by a paucity of scoring chances as the two teams struggled to make inroads in attack.
Herrera was Hibs’ most productive outlet with his bursting runs on the wing but Birkirkara were up for it. On 21 minutes, keeper Reuben Gauci fisted away Failla’s corner from the right after the Stripes had stopped a dangerous Herrera incursion.
Close to the 26th-minute mark, Haruna had the Hibs defence on the backfoot as the Nigerian dallied into the box before cutting the ball back to Muscat who unleashed a powerful shot but the back-tracking Cohen was alert to the danger as he repelled the effort.
The frequency of attacks increased sharply as the first half gathered pace. Edison again anticipated his markers to meet Failla’s set-piece cross but the Brazilian headed wide.
Eleven minutes from half-time, Birkirkara suffered an unexpected setback when Muscat was shown a straight red card for foolishly hitting Bjorn Kristensen in an off-the-ball incident.
Edison threatened to make life more complicated for Birkirkara but his header from Jackson Lima’s dipping set-piece cross sailed over the crossbar.
With his team down to 10 men, Zammit instructed Bajada to drop back and partner Scicluna in central midfield.
The stage looked set for Hibs to take control but somewhat surprisingly, they found themselves a goal down before half-time.
Retrieving possession in midfield, Camenzuli darted past Kristensen as the Stripes attacked on the counter. The young wing-back played the ball out to Avila-Perez whose cross from the right caused a goalmouth melee and Haruna was on hand to flick home from routine distance.
Before half-time, Miller made his first substitution, throwing on Marcelo Dias, a forward, for Jason Lee Vandelannoite who had started the game at centre-half.
In the opening minutes of the second half, Haruna sped past Jonathan Pearson to latch on to a long ball from midfield but hit wide.
When Herrera produced one of his powerful runs, this time through the inside-left channel, Birkirkara panicked as the wing-back dashed into the box before rifling a rising shot that came off the crossbar.
Nine minutes into the second half, Tarabai should have equalised for Hibs as Herrera’s cross found him unmarked in the box but again he headed over.
Camenzuli thought he had doubled Birkirkara’s lead when tapping the ball into the net after Hibs had made a mess of dealing with a free-kick but the ‘goal’ was chalked off for offside.
Moments later, Birkirkara had another gilt-edged opportunity to increase their advantage as they hit on the counter but Camenzuli mishit his pass to Avila-Perez, allowing Muscat to race out of his goal and clear the danger.
The action was relentless.
Close to the hour, Tarabai did nod the ball home from Herrera’s cross but the Brazilian was in an offside position.
Referee Mario Apap further enraged the Birkirkara clan when he dismissed Vukanac after ruling that the Serbian had made a dangerous studs-up challenge on Cohen.
Hibs intensified their siege against the nine-man Stripes who, to their credit, refused to lie down.
Haruna typified Birkirkara’s resistance when heading away Jackson Lima’s free-kick. Failla then tried his luck with a free-kick but Gauci saved.
The match officials then caught the eye for the wrong reasons with Apap and his assistant William Debattista seemingly struck by a bout of miscommunication.
Despite their territorial dominance, Hibs lacked inspiration.
Dias made headway on the right only to mishit his cross but, five minutes from time, the game was as good over when, astonishingly, Birkirkara doubled their lead.
Substitute Jean Pierre Mifsud Triganza advanced unimpeded before sending a low cross to Camenzuli who fired past keeper Muscat.
R. Gauci-7, R. Scicluna-6.5, N. Vukanac, J. Zerafa-6.5, R. Camenzuli-7, R. Muscat, G. Sciberras-8, S. Bajada-6.5, A. Buhagiar-7, M. Avila-Perez-6 (77 M. Camilleri), S. Shodiya Haruna-7 (84 J.P. Mifsud Triganza).
M. Muscat-4, J. Pearson-5.5 (80 P. Anizoba), J. Vandelannoite-5 (45 M. Dias-5.5), R. Soares-4, R. Camilleri-4, B. Kristensen-5 (82 J. Bezzina), A. Cohen-5.5, Jackson Lima-5.5, E. Herrera-7, C. Failla-5.5, Luis Edison-4.
Referee: Mario Apap.
Yellow cards: Buhagiar, Haruna, Failla.
Red cards: Muscat (B) 34; Vukanac (B) 66.
BOV Player of the match: Shola Shodiya Haruna (Birkirkara).