Valletta and Balzan will write the final chapter of the 2018-19 season on Saturday after battling through the FA Trophy semi-finals last weekend.
The Cup holders, despite being dogged by injuries and fatigue, gave another example of their fiery character when they scored a goal in each half to fend off the challenge of Gżira United to book their place in the FA Trophy final for a second successive season.
On the other hand, Balzan put on a sprightly battling performance to see off Birkirkara in a five-goal thriller that puts them just a win away from a historic first FA Trophy and a place in the Europa League qualifiers this summer.
After playing over four hours of football in the space of a week, few had given Valletta a chance to see off Gżira on Sunday but the Citizens players gave another proof of their strength-in-depth as despite having a number of key players missing they still proved too strong for the Maroons.
Rowen Muscat, who fired Valletta ahead early in the second half, said that the team’s latest success is down to the players’ winning mentality and more importantly it showed that all the 20 players in the squad are capable of going into the side to do the job.
“We knew that Gżira United were going to be very difficult opponents for us as this season we had yet to beat them in the league,” Muscat told the Times of Malta.
“During the last week we played a lot of football, and it was only natural that our team was affected by injuries and suspensions leaving our coach with limited personnel. But the players that came in did the job for us even though they are not regular members and that shows the quality of the squad we have here.
“The last two weeks have been memorable for us at Valletta as we received a lot of support from our fans and the club committee and their warmth enabled us to come closer together and bring home important wins.”
Saturday’s victory over Balzan put Valletta on the verge of completing an unprecedented feat in their club history as winning the FA Trophy would see the Citizens clinch a league and cup double in consecutive seasons, a feat only achieved by Ħamrun Spartans in 1986 and 1987.
“For us at Valletta winning trophies is what it is all about,” Muscat said.
“We have players such as Jonathan Caruana, Steve Borg, Henry Bonello, Ryan Camilleri and myself, who have won a lot of silverware but we are always hungry for more.
“It’s true that winning the double-double is of great motivation for us but at the same time we don’t have particular pressure to achieve that feat.
“After winning the league title in such dramatic fashion all that comes now is a bonus for us so basically I think there will be more pressure on Balzan, who need to win the final to qualify to European football, than on us who have already achieved our big goal this season – to lift the championship crown.”
For Balzan, the FA Trophy final is their final chance this season for a return to European football after what was a disappointing term.
On Saturday, Jacques Scerri’s men looked a shadow of the team that struggles the top teams in the top flight that saw them put on a sprightly performance which saw them come from behind to book their place in the FA Trophy final for the first time since 2015.
Alfred Effiong was one of the shining lights for Balzan on Saturday as the veteran Malta striker rifled home the winner ten minutes from time that put the team on the brink of their first ever title.
“Against Birkirkara we had little margin of error as we were coming from a long and difficult season during which we failed to qualify to Europe through the Premier League and the FA Trophy is our only hope of salvaging the season,” the 34-year-old forward said.
“Our semi-final against Birkirkara was characterized by several key moments and it was hard for us to go into the half-time interval trailing 2-1 despite playing the better football.
“But the half-time pep talk from our coach inspired us to step our game in the second half. Despite all the difficulties, we always believed that we could turn it around and I’m so pleased to have scored the winner that takes the team closer to our objective.”
Historic cup success
Champions Valletta are the only team that is separating Balzan from a maiden title and European football and although the Citizens may be on a high after their title success, Effiong is confident Balzan can finish the job on Saturday.
“We are approaching this final in high spirits as we know that Saturday’s final gives us the chance to make amends to a disappointing season by bringing the first ever major trophy to our club,” Effiong said.
“All the players will take the field determined to give everything we have against Valletta as it’s our last chance to qualify to European football. Valletta may be the favourites after winning the title but in cup matches what matters most is how one performs on the day.
“It’s up to us to show that we are up for it and we must fight till the end to help the club rewrite its history books and win the club’s first ever FA Trophy final.”
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