Day 19 Valletta 2 Zebbug 0
Valletta have yet to find two strong overseas players who match the lofty standards demanded by coach Ivan Zammit but the foreign trio who survived the January cull are not letting the team down.
As in their previous match against Pietà, the champions looked somewhat lethargic despite dominating possession against an improved Zebbug side but in Abdelkarim Nafti, the Citizens had the game’s stand-out performer who was a constant threat to the Rangers rearguard with his dazzling runs down the wing.
Nafti broke the Rangers’ resistance with a well-taken goal after good work by Hamza Barry and Lateef Elford-Alliyu.
Nafti was prominent again in the second half when his diagonal effort came off the crossbar after the Tunisian had swept past two defenders but by then Valletta had emerged from their first-half torpor.
Barry had been largely subdued in the opening period but sprung to life in the second, masterminding the move that led to the goal scored by Elford-Alliyu.
No wonder Nafti, Barry and Elford-Alliyu departed to a warm applause from the City fans after being substituted late in the game as their efforts helped the champions overcome the gritty Rangers for their fourth straight victory which cut their gap on Hibs to 12 points before the leaders take on Balzan this afternoon.
There were no alterations in Valletta’s line-up. The tactical approach was also the same as Elford-Alliyu retained his role as the central cog in a three-man forward line with the versatile Barry and Nafti operating on the wings.
Zammit persisted with Jonathan Caruana in the holding midfield position as Luke Dimech partnered Steve Borg in the heart of defence.
Zebbug’s resources were boosted by the return of Yessous Camilleri, Jacob Borg and Kurt Zammit but Scottish ace Carlo Monti was missing through injury.
Coach Alfonso Greco switched Matthew Bartolo to right-back in a 4-1-4-1 formation that had Rashid Yussuff starting on the right and Mauricio Britto as lone striker.
Inside the opening three minutes, Elford-Alliyu teed up Nafti but his grounder was blocked by Manuel Bartolo, yesterday facing his former team.
Rangers created a good chance of their own when captain Matias Muchardi slipped a through-ball to Britto who darted into the box but Borg slid in to nudge the ball away from the Brazilian.
Valletta struggled to settle into their usual rhythm, lacking the intensity to break down their opponents.
Zammit was clearly not pleased with his side’s early efforts, yelling “passiggata” (stroll) at his players.
A good passing move involving Caruana, Dimech and Roderick Briffa ended with Nafti putting in a fine cross from the right but Ryan Fenech miscued his header.
Valletta looked out of sorts at the back when Muchardi exchanged passes with Britto but Yussuff curled his shot over the bar.
The game remained devoid of excitement but, nine minutes from half-time, Valletta thought that they had opened the scoring when Nafti’s corner soared towards goal but the ball hit the far post before Zebbug cleared.
The champions were now surging forward with renewed purpose and their improvement produced instant dividends.
With four minutes of the first half remaining, Barry wrong-footed Barbetti before squaring a pass to Elford-Alliyu. He dragged the ball back to Nafti who speared his shot past Bartolo.
Valletta threatened to increase their lead when Briffa released Barry inside the box but the Gambian’s grounder was stopped by the alert Bartolo.
As the second half got underway, the Citizens piled up the pressure.
A promising opening beckoned for Valletta when Nafti freed Barry but the latter’s shot was repelled by Camilleri.
Rangers were quick to send out a warning that they were still very much in the game. Exploiting the gaps in front of City’s defence, Muchardi flicked the ball to Thomas Paris whose effort ended just wide of the post.
In their next attack, Valletta looked certain to add to their lead as Nafti raced towards the byline but his angled shot crashed against the underside of the crossbar.
The exchanges livened up.
Britto and Yussuff combined to produce an opening for the advancing Muchardi but the Argentine hit wide.
At the other end, a shot by Caruana was stopped by Bartolo.
A delightful one-two between the overlapping Ryan Camilleri and Briffa opened up the Rangers defence but the former’s cross-cum-shot was dealt with by the Rangers keeper.
Valletta closed the game 14 minutes from time.
Barry played a crucial role as he dribbled his way towards the byline before pulling the ball back to Elford-Alliyu who poked home from routine distance.
With the points safely sewn up, Valletta were now in control.
Barry’s lob ended wide and Llywelyn Cremona, who had just replaced Nafti, threatened to make an instant impact. However, his thunderous drive rattled the crossbar.
VALLETTA – N. Vella, R. Camilleri, S. Borg, H. Barry (J. Borg), L. Elford, J. Caruana, I. Azzopardi, R. Fenech, A. Nafti (L. Cremona), L. Dimech, R. Briffa (L. Montebello)
ZEBBUG – M. Bartolo, Y. Camilleri, P. Barbetti, L. Galea, J. Borg, M. Bartolo, T. Paris, M. Mucchardi, K. Zammit (M. Ciantar) (M. Gauci), R. Yussuff, M. Rodrigues Britto.
Date: 17.01.15 Time: 16:00 Venue: Hibs Stadium
Scorers: 41′ A. Nafti, 76′ L. Elford
Yellow Cards: R. Fenech (V), Y. Camilleri (Z)
Man of Match: Abdelkarim Nafti (v)
Referee: A. Azzopardi