The new season in Malta is just about to begin, and Paul Grech is here to tell us all about what we can expect there over the next few months.
When a league changes format, heated debate and criticism is likely to follow. When the rules are changed midway through a season, you can also throw in a significant element of suspicion over what the motives for such a change might be. So it was in Malta when in January it was announced that the Premier league was being expanded from ten to twelve clubs, a decision which meant that one rather than two clubs would be relegated during the season that was underway, with three clubs being promoted from the First Division. Seeing that there were two big clubs – Sliema Wanderers and Hibernians – in serious danger of relegation, the initial reaction was that this was a move brought about to avoid seeing one of them go down. Which, considering that Hibernians actually finished second off bottom, was a rather justified way of seeing things.
In truth, it was a move pushed by Norman Darmanin Demajo who a few months earlier had won the right to lead the Malta Football Association after a long and bitter fight with previous president Dr. Joe Mifsud. For Darmanin Demajo and the staff that he brought with him, the league needed revamping and this was the best way to achieve this. Whether that is the case remains to be seen. That the relegation pool will now contain six teams rather than four – the mechanism of splitting the league into two after the initial two rounds remains – is an obvious benefit but it is doubtful whether the increase in the number of teams will add to the quality of the league.
It is just as doubtful whether anyone will manage to stay within touching distance of Valletta, let alone stop them. Bankrolled by a rich owner of a pharmaceutical company, Valletta have built an impressive squad that led to their complete domination of the Premier League where they went through the whole of the season without losing a game and with a gap of eight points over their closest rival. So strong is their squad that during the summer they could afford to let go on loan three players with national team experience and Valletta players are expected to be in the starting eleven of six other Premier League teams. To that squad they’ve added the Nigerian striker Alfred Effiong – the league’s top scorer last year – and the Brazilian William Barbosa da Silva has been bought in after a career spent in Italy’s minor leagues.
Yet, undoubtedly Valletta’s biggest move of the summer was that to sign former Coventry and Barnsley striker Michael Mifsud. Mifsud’s story is an intriguing – and sad – one. Arguably the most talented player ever to come out of Malta, his success at Coventry fueled hopes that he might make it to the Premiership, a feeling strengthened when he scored a brace against Manchester United in the League Cup. It is a feeling that he seemed to share when, with his contract at Coventry running down, he refused a move to fellow Championship side Bristol City. There were other, rumoured, bids to sign him when that contract did come to an end but each one was turned down always in the hope of a better one coming along. That was two years ago. Mifsud has since played for six months each with Valletta and, last season, with Qormi. That he has now signed on for a full season would indicate that he’s come to accept that returning home is the best offer that will come along. The aim for him and his teammates will be to win everything that is out there. This they seem set on doing if their 3-0 trashing (with a debut hat-trick by Mifsud) of neighbours and bitter rivals Floriana in the season opening Super Cup is anything to go by.
Last season, Floriana managed to dent Valletta’s celebrations when they beat them in the final of the FA Trophy. Having finished the league in second, they are arguably their closest challengers for the league title. Yet that Super Cup defeat and the humiliating 8-0 home defeat to AEK Larnaca in the Europa League have dampened expectations. Apart from Floriana, the other two teams who Valletta might consider as possible threats are Birkirkara and Sliema Wanderers. The first one of those two actually beat Valletta to the league title two seasons ago. During the summer they took the surprising decision of not renewing the contract of their popular and charismatic coach Pawlu Zammit who had been seen as the main reason for Birkirkara’s title win a year earlier. In his place comes Patrick Curmi, who had done well at Marsaxlokk and who is finally tasked with managing a big club. The retirement of club captain and legend Michael Galea leaves an emotional gap which will be felt, with Curmi acting quickly to bring in his former captain Gareth Sciberras. Birkirkara have also revamped the foreign players on their books and will be looking at them, along with Malta internationals Shaun Bajada and Trevor Cilia, if they are to offer a serious challenge.
The same applies to Sliema Wanderers who have also brought in new foreign players in the hope of laying the foundation for a good season. Tellingly, however, their main local signings – Maltese internationals Steve Bezzina and Cleavon Frendo – both have joined from Valletta on loan. The summer has also been marked by the increasing number of Brazilian players joining Maltese club. In the space of a couple of years these have supplanted Nigerians as the favoured imports to fill the three slots available for foreign players – somehow, the Maltese Football Association has managed to limit the number of foreign players that each team can utilise despite Malta’s ascension to the European Union – so much that now every team has at least one. Tarxien Rainbows were the pioneers of this trend and also its greatest advert. A small club used to infrequent, brief and occasionally humiliating forays in the top flight was transformed into one capable of challenging the elite thanks to their ability to attract a string of exceptionally talented (by local standards) Brazilian players. Two consecutive fifth place finishes might not seem much but for a club of Tarxien’s stature, they represent their golden era.
Tarxien are part of the group of teams for whom ending up in the Championship pool would be a good result. Marsaxlokk are in a similar situation, although the loss of coach Patrick Curmi, along with that of top scorer Alfred Effiong, will hit them. Ambition is always burning at Hamrun Spartans who haven’t ever really managed to repeat the success that their team enjoyed during the eighties. Midfielder Kevin Sammut has joined from Valletta – on loan – and he should be enough to ensure a degree of progress. Hibernians will be hoping for a better season than the last one when they were so close to getting relegated. Coach Mark Miller remains, although one suspects more on the strength of the league title he won three years back than for anything he has achieved more recently, but the (dismal) experiment with British players has been ditched with Hibs joining the Brazilian trend.
Thanks to their ever florid youth system, Hibernians seem to be in a position where they can avoid any scares. Whether the same applies to Qormi seems doubtful. The team looked weak last season and it doesn’t seem to have gotten much stronger over the summer. What could save them, however, is the presence of the three newly promoted clubs. Inevitably, Balzan Youths, Mosta and Mqabba are bound to be tagged as relegation candidates and how they fare will determine whether the expansion has resulted in greater quality or if it has diluted it. Of the three, the best placed appear to be First Division champions Balzan who are managed by former Valletta midfielder Ivan Zammit and have signed five players on loan from their manager’s former club. Mosta too have dipped into the Valletta loan market – they’ve signed Ian Zammit and Kurt Magro – meaning that only Mqabba have gone against the grain and effectively retained the squad that won promotion.
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