Tradition meets novelty this afternoon as Sliema Wanderers, the most decorated club in the history of Maltese football, take on Balzan, the emerging force of the Premier League, in the final of the FA Trophy at the National Stadium (kick-off 5pm).
Victory today would cement Sliema Wanderers’ position at the summit of the all-time FA Trophy winners’ list with 21 triumphs while Balzan are gunning for their first major honour.
While Sliema clearly have history on their side, Balzan will take heart from their meteoric rise over the past three years as well as their positive head-to-head league record – two wins and a draw – against the Blues this season.
Coach Oliver Spiteri was the epitome of cautious optimism during the pre-match news conference.
“We’re approaching this final in high spirits but we’re aware of Sliema’s strength,” Spiteri said.
“The two teams have a 50-50 chance of winning. We know it’s going to be a difficult game but we will be doing our best. I hope the final will be an exciting encounter.”
The sense of anticipation in the Balzan camp is palpably high but Spiteri insisted that it was business as usual as far as the team’s preparations are concerned.
“We have been preparing for this game in a normal way,” Spiteri said.
“There is no euphoria. We know that the whole village is talking about this final but this is a nice thing.
“It will boil down to who plays better on the day. There are no favourites as Sliema also possess a strong squad.
“Episodes can change the course of a game.”
Balzan have already secured a Europa League spot on the back of their fourth-place league finish as Sliema are ineligible to take part in UEFA competitions after withdrawing their licence application.
In light of the club’s intensive recruitment policy in the last two years, many expected Balzan to challenge for a top-two position but Spiteri defended his team’s record in the championship.
“We lost two key players, Ryan Fenech and Bojan Kaljevic, to long-term injuries before the start of the season,” Spiteri said.
“We stayed in the leading positions until late November but then we went through a bad spell, losing three from five games.
“This temporary slump widened the gap with the top teams.
“In January, we brought in some new players, also with the aim of consolidating the squad for next season, but the team improved and went on a 15-game unbeaten run.
“I have no regrets about our performance in the league. The players deserve a lot of credit as, until the final weeks of the season, we were still in contention to win the title.
“Valletta aside, we picked up more points than all the other title challengers in the January-April period.”
Sliema only finished seventh in the championship but their disciplined showing in the 1-0 semi-final win over Birkirkara has restored their self-belief and confidence as the Blues seek to end a seven-year wait for a major trophy.
Coach Alfonso Greco was his usual prudent self.
“It’s a final and therefore an important occasion for both teams,” Greco, who was in charge of Sliema when they lost 1-0 to Valletta in the final of the FA Trophy two years ago, said.
“We are coming from a positive performance against Birkirkara but I have a lot of respect for Balzan.
“They are an important club with strong players who can decide a match with a moment of individual brilliance.
“We will try to exploit our strengths and do our utmost to win the game.”
From a personal perspective, Sliema’s appearance in the final of the FA Trophy represents a dramatic turnaround for Greco.
Faced with a question as to whether he felt that his association with Maltese football was over after his short stint at the helm of Żebbuġ Rangers ended in disappointment following the team’s relegation, the Italian replied: “First and foremost, this is my second FA Trophy final in three years.
“Football is made up of choices and decisions which may be good or bad but different experiences help you to grow and mature.
“With regards to my spell as Żebbuġ coach, there was a period when the team had moved out of the relegation zone but the season ended on a negative note.”
Greco has been credited with reversing Sliema’s fortunes after he began his second spell in charge of the team in February. His familiarity with the Sliema environment was a key factor in the team’s mini-revival.
“There is no secret formula,” Greco said. “I’m lucky as I was familiar with several players in the squad while those that I didn’t know were willing to work hard and adapt to my philosophy. In that sense, it was somewhat easy for me to leave my imprint on the team.”
The suspension of left-back Gary Muir, who saw red in the semi-final after collecting two cautions, is a setback for Greco as Sliema have a shortage of left-footed players.
Mark Scerri, who had an excellent game, filled in for Muir in the final 20 minutes but Greco refused to divulge whether the midfielder will stay at left-back for the final.
“We will try to replace an important player like Gary Muir in the best possible way without affecting the balance of the team,” Greco said.
Denni, who was taken off on a stretcher in the closing stages of Saturday’s semi-final, is expected to be declared fit to play today.
Sliema forward Jean Paul Farrugia received a boost yesterday after being named BOV player of the month for April.
Balzan are buoyed by the return of striker Lydon Micallef who missed the semi-final win over Pembroke due to suspension.
Captain Dylan Grima has recovered from injury and defender Samir Arab has returned to training but Montenegrin striker Aleksandar Vujacic is doubtful. Fenech remains sidelined.