Valletta 1
Mifsud 65;
Partizan Belgrade 4
Tomic 6; Ivanov 33; Scepovic 42; Ostojic 71;

Valletta knew the odds were stacked against them as they prepared to take on Partizan Belgrade but they still harboured hopes of eking out a positive result in the home leg.

That cautious optimism had been fuelled by a 9-0 thumping of Andorran champions FC Lusitans in the previous round but Partizan were a different proposition altogether.

Mark Miller was aware that for Valletta to stand a glimmer of a chance they had to avoid conceding an early goal but it took the Serbs only six minutes to score.

The disparity between the two sides was there for all to see as the sharp Partizan players were usually a step ahead of Valletta who were initially unable to match their opponents’ movement and passing.

Just when it looked as though Valletta had overcome their early toils, a commotion caused by some mindless Partizan supporters, who tried to force their way into the stadium, led to a brief interruption which seemed to alienate the home players.

Not so can be said of Partizan who quickly regained the upperhand, scoring two more goals to all but secure their passage to the next round by half-time.

Although the Citizens were outclassed, Miller could still take some positives from the match, notably the positive debut of newly-signed Brazilian midfielder Joao Gabriel Da Silva, who came on in the second half, and Denni’s fine attacking display after the change of ends.

Jhonnattann was surprisingly left out of the initial line-up as Miller made two changes from last week’s away game in Andorra.

Dyson Falzon was preferred to Jhonnattann and Ryan Fenech replaced Jusselio. Da Silva was among the substitutes but rumours about Frank Temile’s potential participation proved way off the mark as the Nigerian winger was only conspicuous by his absence.

Wary of Partizan’s strength, Miller opted to crowd the midfield with William Barbosa performing screening duties in front of defence with Roderick Briffa and Ryan Fenech in front of him.

Michael Mifsud was Valletta’s lone forward in a 4-1-4-1 formation.

The build-up to the match had been somewhat soured by negative stories on the official FK Partizan website about the delays encountered on their arrival in Malta and the facilities at the Hibs Stadium.

Partizan dominated possession in the opening stages. Their better start yielded an early goal after six minutes, Nemanja Tomic surprising goalkeeper Andre Krul with a dipping shot from an angle.

The visitors stayed in ascendancy but Valletta threatened to equalise on the counter.

After the hosts had repelled a corner taken by Stefan Babovic, the clearance fell to Mifsud who set off on a run but he was quickly closed down by Vladimir Volkov.

Partizan’s brisk opening left no-one in doubt as to the massive challenge facing Valletta.

Another quick Partizan attack prised open the City defence as Stefan Scepovic surged forward before crossing for Lazar Markovic, a reported target for a host of big European clubs, but the latter’s flick was kept out by Krul.

Vladimir Vermezovic’s team struggled to maintain their early momentum however as Valletta gained ground.

They protested for a penalty when Fenech’s shot appeared to come off Sasa Markovic’s arm but the referee was unmoved, much to the dismay of the City faithful.

On 25 minutes, Scepovic drifted past the City defence but his diagonal shot ended wide.

The match was then halted for a few minutes as two Partizan supporters, holding a large banner, made their way into the stadium after climbing a perimeter wall.

The two fans walked across the warm-up pitch before being apprehended by the police.

More ticketless Partizan supporters tried to force their way through after opening a large gate separating the stadium from an abandoned field but the police managed to push them back.

Informed sources told The Times last night that 12 Partizan fans were arrested and some others rounded up outside the Hibs Stadium following the incidents.

Those apprehended were escorted to the airport by the police and were to board the first flight home.

When the game resumed, Valletta fell further behind as Ivan Ivanov was on hand to head Babovic’s right-hand corner into the net.

The incidents appeared to undermine Valletta’s concentration as Partizan stayed on top.

They all but sealed the issue when Babovic, one of Partizan’s best players, accelerated into the box from the left before laying the ball to Scepovic who beat Krul from routine distance.

At the start of the second half, Miller introduced Da Silva for Ian Azzopardi and repositioned Falzon as left-back.

Valletta forced the tempo after the interval. They should have narrowed the deficit when Briffa slipped a through-pass to Denni who cut inside from the right but his grounder rolled wide of the post after taking a deflection.

Da Silva’s introduction added some much-needed flair to Valletta’s midfield. Partizan were caught off balance when Briffa’s diagonal pass released Denni on the left. The Brazilian combined speed with technique to surge into the box before hitting a low cross towards Da Silva who blasted over.

At the other end, Babovic drove wide after making headway in the City box.

Valletta managed to resurrect their hopes on 65 minutes.

Denni, thriving in a more advanced position, delivered an excellent through-ball to Mifsud who had escaped the attentions of the Partizan defenders before side-footing the ball past the erstwhile untested Vladimir Stojkovic.

Miller signalled his intent to boost Valletta’s attacking impetus as he brought on Jhonnattann for Fenech.

But, the Citizens’ optimism was cut short when Partizan restored their three-goal lead, Milos Ostojic nipping in to head Babovic’s set-piece cross past Krul.

Babovic was wide with another thunderbolt before Partizan substitute Mohamed Zubya lifted the ball over after a Sasa Ilic delivery.

Krul prevented Partizan from adding to their lead when Scepovic freed Zubya but the latter’s grounder was touched away by the keeper.

A. Krul, I. Azzopardi (46 J. Gabriel Da Silva), W. Barbosa, Ricardo, S. Borg (80 E. Agius), R. Briffa, J. Caruana, Denni, D. Falzon, R. Fenech (66 Jhonnattann), M. Mifsud.

FK Partizan
V. Stojkovic, N. Aksentijevic, V. Volkov, M. Ostojic, I. Ivanov, G. Lovre (37 S. Ilic), S. Markovic, N. Tomic (76 M. Zubya), S. Babovic, L. Markovic (56 N. Ninkovic), S. Scepovic.

Referee: Liran Liany (Israel).

Yellow cards: Fenech; Babovic; Ricardo.

Second qualifying round, first legs

Played yesterday
F91 Dudelange (LUX) vs Salzburg (AUT) - 1-0
Valletta (MLT) vs Partizan Belgrade (SRB) - 1-4
Ulisses (ARM) vs Sheriff (MDA) - 0-1
Flora Tallinn (EST) vs FC Basel (SUI) - 0-2
HJK Helsinki (FIN) vs KR Reykjavik (ISL) - 7-0
Neftci PFK (AZE) vs Zestafoni (GEO) - 3-0
Slovan Liberec (CZE) vs S. Karagandy (KAZ) - 1-0
MSK Zilina (SVK) vs H. Kiryat Shmona (ISR) - 1-0
The New Saints (WAL) vs Helsingborgs (SWE) - 0-0
KS Skenderbeu (ALB) vs Debreceni (HUN) - 1-0
Shamrock Rovers (IRL) vs FK Ekranas (LTU) - 0-0

Playing today
NK Maribor (SVN) vs FK Zeljeznicar (BIH)
BATE Borisov (BLR) vs FK Vardar (MKD)
AEL Limassol (CYP) vs Linfield (NIR)
Molde FK (NOR) vs FK Ventspils (LVA)
L. Razgrad (BUL) vs Dinamo Zagreb (CRO)
Buducnost (MNE) vs Slask Wroclaw (POL)

Second legs: July 24 and 25.

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