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Saturday, February 14, 2015


The second match making up the double-header which took place on 27/1/15 was, to use a somewhat hackneyed cliché, a battle of the basement between Zebbug Rangers and Pietà Hotspurs, who occupied the bottom two spots in the BOV Premier League.
On paper, the clash between the bottom two teams in the BOV Premier League, bottom side Zebbug Rangers - who were promoted from the First Division at the end of last season - and Pietà Hotspurs, five points above them, promised little, but there was an explosive start to, and a sting in the tail at the end of, what turned out to be a very competitive fixture between the two newly-promoted pairing.

Pietà's Luke Micallef set the tone when, in the second minute and with the sparse crowd still settling into their seats, he rode a couple of tackles on the right-hand side of the penalty area and then shot from 15 yards out, but he effort was blocked by Rangers' keeper Emmanuel Bartolo.

There was to be no respite for Bartolo as, seconds later, the resulting corner, taken by Claudio Francis, was headed in at the far post by Orisco Ndubisi Anonam with the Rangers defence static. The crowd was momentarily stunned, but the Blues fans quickly found their voices to acclaim Anonam's effort. 

The three-piece Zebbug band, meanwhile, which was entertaining one and all with a varied and skily-executed repertoire (the "band" which regularly accompanies the England team could learn a lot from them) quickly got back into their stride, which was more than could be said of their team.

 PLAYING AWAY: The Zebbug Rangers supporters' band limering up before the game against Pietà Hotspurs

It was all Pietà in the early stages, with the impressive Francis shooting wide for last season's First Division champions with a snap-shot after 8 minutes, culminating a period of intense pressure, and Jurgen Pisani then shot across goal and wide two minutes later after a run down the left. 

Team-mate Jurgen Agius then received the game's first yellow card for a foul on Mauricio Britto. Zebbug's first shot on goal came from the resulting free-kick after 14 minutes, but Britto's shot was gathered by Pietà 'keeper Miguel Montfort. A great ball into the Blues' danger-zone from Rashid Yussuf was eventually cleared by Matias Muchardi and came to Britto some 20 yards out, but his shot was a tame one and saved easliy by Montfort.

Newuche's dangerous cross from the left was turned behind by Bartolo, who was alert to the possible danger the cross might have caused, but this period of the game was dominated by Rangers, who were increasingly putting pressure on the Pietà defence. Britto had another shot on goal, but his shot was charged down and cleared upfield by the defence; after a little to-ing and fro-ing, the counter-attack led to Pisani finishing the move with a neat half-volley past Bartolo. Unfortunately for Pisani, the linesman had his flag up for offside.

A couple of somewhat inaccurate shots from both sides followed, and then, with half-time approaching, Frances was unlucky to see his curling shot cleared off the line by Lee Galea with Bartolo nowhere.

The teams came out for the second half to be greeted by rain, and it appeared as though the rain-gods were determined to do Rangers a favour, for they began the second half with increased vigour; half-time sub Miguel Ciantar received the ball out left after 49 minutes, dummied two defenders and beat another before shooting from 20 yards. His shot had Montfort scrambling to his left, but went behind for a goal-kick.

At the other end, a cross from the left was headed on by a defender, which seemed to surprise Newuche, who was still able to put his header on target, if only into Bartolo's hands. Yussuf supplied another cross moments later for Bartolo to get on the end of, but his shot went wastefully wide, much to the annoyance of the Zebbug support. Still they pressured, but seemed destined to receive no reward as Yussuf passed to Muchardi, who saw his goal-bound shot cleared.

MIDFIELD TUSSLE: Players from Zebbug Rangers and Pietà Hotspurs battle it out during the battle of the two basement sides on 27/1/14

Frances received the game's second yellow card for a foul on Muchardi as the team in yellow and green increased the pressure; on the hour, Muchardi had two bites at the cherry to bring his side level, but his second attempt went through a Pietà defender's legs but was saved by Montfort at the base of the near post.

A brief flurry from the Hotspurs followed, and, after Leonardo Fortunato played the ball out to Newuche on the right, but his low, dangerous cross just eluded Newuche and a lunging Luke Micallef. A through ball from Gabriel was then picked up by Newuche, but his 20-yarder went the wrong side of Bartolo's right-hand post.

Pietà's period of pressure was to prove no more than an intermission as Zebbug picked up the pace again and were more and more in the ascendancy as the game entered the last 20 minutes. A cross from Paltemio Barbetti was just a tad too high for Yussuf, whilst some good work from Jacob Borg and a nifty through-ball from Muchardi was not rewarded with a goal from Britto; his shot from the edge of the box was well saved by Montfort. Muchardi himself had a half-volley beaten out by Montfort in the 79th minute after getting on to the end of a cross from the left.

Muchardi had been amongst Rangers' most creative players during the game, and his - and his team's - persistence finally paid off when, with six minutes still on the clock, he controlled a cross from Borg and, finding himself in space, found the time to sidefoot the ball low to the left of Montfort. Zebbug were level, and were in no mood to dwell on Muchardi's fine finish; the ball was retrieved and the Rangers players were eager to finish the job off as the rain finally petered out.

In the last minute of normal time, they did exactly that. A Kurt Zammit corner was headed in by Lee Galea, who had ghosted in at the far post and thundered the ball into the net from 3 yards out. Now the Zebbug players and fans could celebrate, and celebrate they did. Most of the spectators present were still hiding from the rain, but the Rangers' fans burst forth from whatever cover they could find and bodies were flying everywhere in delirium as the band continued to play.

 JOY UNCONFINED: Zebbug Rangers players and fans celebrate after their hard-fought victory over Pietà Hotspurs

A couple of minutes of injury-time were played but Zebbug kept things cool and there was to be no further pressure of note from their deflated opponents. The points were in the bag, and the win drew them to within two points of the team they had just defeated.

Special credit goes to Matias Muchardi, who was at the heart of almost everything that Zebbug created; Rashid Yussuf, Britto and Galea also impressed for the winners. Claudio Francis deserves plaudits for his performance for Pietà, as does Jurgen Pisani and the busy Newuche before his substitution.

This was only Zebbug's third win of a difficult season so far, but the three points, not to mention the manner in which they were achieved, should give them hope for the rest of the season. They were among the favourites to go back down to the First Division at the start of the season, but they play with heart and survival is far from beyond them. There will be many twists and turns before the end of the season, but Zebbug will need as many points as possible before the league splits into two in a few weeks' time. Ditto for Pietà, who came up as First Division champions last season.

ZEBBUG RANGERS: 26 Emmanuel BARTOLO, 6 Yessous CAMILLERI, 66 Lee GALEA, 5 Paltemio BARBETTI, 3 Jacob BORG, 25 Matias MUCHARDI, 14 Thomas PARIS (17 Miguel CIANTAR), 7 Kurt ZAMMIT, 11 Matthew BARTOLO, 27 Mauricio Osmar Rodrigues BRITTO, 23 Rashid YUSSUF

SUBSTITUTES (unused): 33 Jeffrey FARRUGIA, 8 Stefano ZAMPA, 20 Shaun BORG, 10 Lee James AGIUS, 18 Melvin FARRUGIA, 16 Matthew GAUCI

PIETÀ HOTSPURS: 1 Miguel MONTFORT, 15 Karl MICALLEF, 18 Orosco Ndubisi ANONAM, 4 Leonardo FORTUNATO dos Santos, 17 Jurgen PISANI, 2 Gabriel João DA SILVA, 14 Luke Emmanuel MICALLEF, 30 Rafael RODRIGUES da Silva, 9 Charles Nnaemekaa NEWUCHE (11 Ricardo COSTA), 33 Claudio FRANCES, 7 Dylon AGIUS (10 Kyle CESARE)

SUBSTITUTES (unused): 24 David CASSAR, 6 Neil PACE COCKS, 8 Ayrton MIZZI, 21 Christian STEWART, 26 Christian DEGABRIELE

AUTHOR'S NOTE: Thanks go to James and the rest of the MFA matchday staff on duty in Hamrun; The Malta Independent was used to compare and confirm notes. Apologies for the standard of the photos included in the article; that's what you get when your moblie carries a sub-standard camera, I suppose..

UPDATE: Zebbug Rangers won their next match, a 1:0 win against Qormi on 31/1/15, to draw level with both them and Pietà Hotspurs, who drew 1:1 with Naxxar Lions. However, the Rangers lost their next game, on 7/2/15, against the Lions, by 4 goals to nil, whilst Pietà surprised many by defeating Balzan 2:1 on the same day to move out of the bottom two.

Both Rangers and Hotspurs have stiff fixtures to fulfil when league action resumes on 21/2/15: Pietà take on Floriana whilst Zebbug must face Valletta.


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